The criminal case against Ray Sansom, the former speaker of our state House, has not gone smoothly.
A judge threw out the guts of the case in the fall. On Wednesday, the prosecutor switched to Plan B and came up with new charges.
Now, make no mistake. The courts are not saying:
"We think it's great that Ray got a bunch of state money for a community college, and then that school gave him an unadvertised, $110,000 'part-time' job the same day he became speaker."
Here, also, is not what the courts are saying:
"We think it's hunky-dory that Ray put $6 million into the state budget for a school building that looks suspiciously like an aircraft hangar that a buddy in private business wanted."
Lastly, here's one more thing the courts are not saying:
"We think it was perfectly fine for Ray and the school's president to arrange a sneaky trustees meeting in Tallahassee, 150 miles away, to talk about stuff."
Nope. The reason the criminal case against Sansom has struggled so far is because of an important issue:
Can you really charge a member of the Legislature with a crime for the way he writes the state budget — no matter how sneakily he did it?
Can the act of writing legislation actually be a crime, if somebody comes back later and decides you did it wrongly? If so, whoa, Nelly!
The prosecutor on Wednesday filed new charges of grand theft. I admire his persistence and agree with his statement that "there is something inherently wrong with what happened here."
Still, it will be quite a feat to convict a legislator for writing legislation. At the least, to be a felony, the level of stealin' in the Legislature needs to be really good. Maybe this qualifies, maybe it doesn't.
Either way …
Ah. Either way, here is a key point:
This puts more pressure on the state House, not less, to deal with Sansom itself.
Remember that there are three separate things happening. There's the criminal case. There's a citizen complaint filed with the state Ethics Commission.
But third, the House itself must decide whether Sansom broke its rules, and whether he should be punished — even expelled. A House committee will start its hearings into Sansom on Jan. 25.
Nobody in the House is eager to punish the colleague they often call "poor Ray." If the criminal case falls apart, some of them might even try to claim: "Hey, even the courts said what he did was all right."
But exactly the opposite is the case.
Far from excusing Sansom, the judge who dismissed part of the criminal case in October, an experienced judge named Terry Lewis, put the onus directly on the Legislature:
"Sometimes," Lewis wrote, "the remedy for such conduct must be political rather than judicial. This is one of those situations."
Lewis noted that the grand jury that indicted Sansom had strongly criticized "a process and a culture in the Legislature that not only tolerates such conduct, but seems to think little of it."
In short, what is happening on the criminal side is the exact opposite of a free pass for the House.
The House is on the hook. The whole state of Florida will be watching to see how it judges not only Ray Sansom, but itself.