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As Sansom watches, House panel votes to put him on trial

Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, right, and his new attorney, Gloria Fletcher, listen to proceedings Tuesday.

Associated Press

Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, right, and his new attorney, Gloria Fletcher, listen to proceedings Tuesday.

TALLAHASSEE — A last-ditch attempt by Rep. Ray Sansom to dismiss or delay charges that he damaged the Legislature's integrity failed Tuesday as a panel of his colleagues voted to put the former speaker on trial later this month.

With Sansom looking on from a front-row seat in the audience, the Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct voted 5-0 to deny motions by Sansom's attorneys to dismiss or delay action on allegations that he violated House rules.

The two votes clear the way for a Feb. 22 public trial of the former House speaker that could result in punishment by his colleagues ranging from a reprimand to expulsion from the House.

The House trial is based on a complaint by a private resident, Susan Smith of Odessa, who said Sansom damaged the honor of the House and created the appearance of improper influence by accepting a job at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville after using his power as House budget chairman to steer millions of dollars in public funds to the college, including $6 million for a hangar for the alleged use of Destin developer Jay Odom, a friend and supporter of Sansom's.

Sansom, a Destin Republican, has sought more time to prepare a defense after his former lawyer, Richard Coates, withdrew from the case. His new lawyer, Gloria Fletcher, who joined the case last week, said she is reviewing more than 7,000 pages of documents.

The five-member panel had twice voted to give Sansom more time, but it showed its mounting impatience Tuesday by voting to try Sansom in the last week before the legislative session begins March 2.

"I believe that we should move forward," said Rep. Faye Culp, R-Tampa.

Attorney Fletcher then asked unsuccessfully to halt the House case pending the outcome of Sansom's upcoming criminal trial on theft charges.

Sansom and his co-defendants in that case, Odom and former college president Bob Richburg, are expected to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in the House with the criminal case pending.

"My client's procedural due process rights are basically out the window if he's forced to defend himself while he has the criminal sanctions hanging over his head," Fletcher said.

But the committee followed the advice of its attorney, former statewide prosecutor Melanie Hines, that Sansom's lawyers failed to show specifically how his rights would be violated if the two cases proceed simultaneously.

Hines also noted Sansom has waived his right to a speedy criminal trial, which could mean even more delays.

"We have been very patient. We have proceeded with extreme caution," said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the committee chairman. "We do have an obligation to the citizens of Florida to conduct our business as well."

Lawmakers do not want delays to thwart any effort against Sansom before the 2010 session ends, allowing the ex-speaker to escape sanctions by his peers.

The committee, composed of three Republicans and two Democrats, also voted to subpoena nine potential witnesses at the trial. They include Odom, Richburg and former state Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, who shared budget-writing duties with Sansom the year he secured millions for the Destin projects.

Numerous other witnesses have agreed to testify voluntarily, including a number of legislative employees.

During Tuesday's hourlong hearing, Sansom did not speak. As it ended, he stepped into a waiting elevator and objected when media personnel tried to ride along with him.

"I can't talk," Sansom said as the elevator doors closed.

Times/Herald researcher Lee Logan contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

As Sansom watches, House panel votes to put him on trial 02/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 2, 2010 10:29pm]
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