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By resigning, Sansom ducks Florida House ethics case but not criminal inquiry

TALLAHASSEE — In the two weeks that Ray Sansom considered a settlement in his pending ethics trial, one option was off the table: quitting the Florida House.

But in a surprise move Sunday, that's what Sansom did, pre-empting a hearing into allegations he acted improperly by steering tens of millions of dollars to a Panhandle college and then taking a job there.

What seems the ultimate act of humiliation may have been, in the end, the best Sansom could have hoped for.

Already a lame duck with no committee assignments and facing term limits, it was likely the Destin Republican would have faced some discipline from the five-member panel of his peers. Quitting also prevented a highly public airing of his budget maneuvers and cozy relationship with the college president and a private developer/GOP donor.

Monday morning, it took the House Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct 3½ minutes to dispatch the case, ending one of the most turbulent periods in decades.

But the criminal case remains, and the prosecutor said Monday that Sansom's resignation has no bearing. "Not at all," Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs said. "I think a crime occurred, and we're trying to prosecute the people we think did it."

And the Sansom controversy is a hot political issue.

Gov. Charlie Crist's U.S. Senate campaign quickly issued a news release Monday noting that GOP primary rival Marco Rubio was a potential witness in the Sansom case. Rubio was speaker in the two years Sansom was the top budget writer in the House and steered $35 million in extra or accelerated money to Northwest Florida State College, his future employer.

The criminal investigation could extend "well beyond the August primary election," Crist's campaign said. "Therefore, it is essential that the Republican primary voters and the people of Florida understand the role that a potential U.S. senator might have played in matters that are now under investigation."

Left unsaid was Crist's role in the Sansom saga. A controversial $6 million airport building was flagged by Crist's staff in 2007 as he considered budget vetoes, but ultimately he approved it.

Crist, like Rubio, has indicated he did not know the building, officially an emergency operations and training center, could have been used by a private developer's corporate jet business.

Rubio's campaign shot back that Crist was trying to shift attention from another Senate poll favoring Rubio.

• • •

It's hard to know what prompted Sansom's abrupt decision to resign Sunday night. He had months to make that move. But he could have felt pressure to spare the House the ordeal.

Rep. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who chaired the ethics panel, had been under some pressure of his own to resolve the case. Some House members wanted to see it go away, arguing Sansom had suffered enough. Not acting strong enough, however, could also stoke public outcry.

Galvano chose a steady course, allowing both sides to prepare their cases for a hearing. He had been working on a settlement with Sansom, but there had been no resolution.

Then, Sunday afternoon, Sansom's lawyer said a resignation was possible. The letter was delivered to Galvano at the Capitol shortly before 8 p.m.

Still, Sansom did not go quietly. Monday morning, his lawyer, Gloria Fletcher, blasted the hearing as unfair and politically motivated.

She noted that a Democratic activist and blogger, Susan Smith of Odessa, had filed the complaint against Sansom, saying her respect in the House had been diminished by his actions.

Galvano had already ruled that Smith's motives were not relevant because the House hired an independent investigator who found probable cause that Sansom broke the rules.

Politics has always pervaded the process, Galvano said, but he called it "a very, very fair" one and added, "we are in unprecedented territory. I can't remember the last time that the House has gone this far with a due process procedure leading up to a hearing."

Fletcher was at a loss to explain the fact that the House rules used against Sansom were written on his watch and were adopted on the day he was officially sworn in as speaker in 2008.

In his resignation letter Sunday, Sansom maintained his innocence and again declared that he eagerly awaited the day to clear his name. One of his political allies, state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the numerous delays Sansom forced in the House hearing raised doubts about how serious Sansom was.

"It seems now, in retrospect, that he wasn't as anxious as he indicated to get in a public forum and tell his side of the story fully and completely," said Gaetz, whose son, Matt, is running for the seat Sansom was to vacate in November due to term limits. Crist on Monday scheduled a special election, with the primary for March 23 and the general election for April 13.

Panel member Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, said he hoped the evidence was heard. "It leaves a lot of voids in my mind … was there anything wrong, how was it wrong, was it all perceptions, was there some other things that were wrong? I wanted to see the evidence."

• • •

Sansom, 47 and a father of three, has always had a loyal following in the Panhandle, so his resignation may be viewed as somewhat of a badge. Some backers have viewed the story as a confection of "liberal South Florida newspapers" or jealous lawmakers from outside North Florida.

He surrendered what was thought to be his only employment since quitting the $110,000 college job — the $31,932 he earned as a state legislator. Sansom has 21.8 years in the Florida Retirement System, having worked in the Legislature, as an Okaloosa County commissioner and on the School Board there.

In his farewell letter, he spoke of his family and thanked those who supported him in his long political career. In a final gesture to his community, Sansom made a move to provide for his legislative staff, asking that they be kept on until after a special election.

Times/Herald reporters Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

By resigning, Sansom ducks Florida House ethics case but not criminal inquiry 02/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 1:04am]
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