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Florida House to judge former speaker Ray Sansom — and itself

The rule book of the Florida House of Representatives begins with a partial quote from Ecclesiastes 10:4:

Calmness can lay great errors to rest.

This morning in Tallahassee, the House turns to judging its former speaker, Ray Sansom. As to whether any "great errors" will be laid "to rest," we'll see.

Today's hearing will deal mostly with preliminaries. Sansom has asked the House to wait for his criminal trial, scheduled for September.

The delay is fair. Sansom is a citizen accused of a crime. The government should not be able to drag him first through a political proceeding in the House and then use whatever he might say there at his criminal trial.

Sooner or later, though, the House is going to have to judge its own — and by extension, judge itself.

When Sansom, R-Destin, sent $6 million in disguise toward a community college in his district to build an aircraft hangar sought by an influential developer …

When Sansom was complicit in holding a "public" meeting of that school's trustees 150 miles from home …

When Sansom was hired by the school, Northwest Florida State College, for an unadvertised, $110,000-a-year job on the day he became speaker …

When Sansom helped the school get more than $8 million for a "leadership institute" that was, in turn, to be under his supervision …

Were those things, you know, wrong? More specifically, did they damage the public's "faith and confidence" in the Florida House?

(Here, it's tempting to propose a smart-aleck defense for Sansom: You can't damage public confidence in the Legislature 'cause there ain't any. There! I look forward to getting my consultant's check from the defense team.)

If Sansom is convicted in the criminal case, it's hard to see how the House could avoid some sort of sanction. He could be fined, censured, reprimanded, placed on probation or expelled.

But if he's acquitted, the House will still be under tremendous pressure: Anything that looks like a whitewash will create a public-opinion backlash and could even become an election issue.

And yet, exactly how the committee gets to a finding against Sansom is an interesting problem. What, exactly, will they punish him for?

Sneaking items into the budget? Getting a job because he's a legislator? That doesn't go on all the time? It requires a finding of "You did the same thing as a lot of people, except you were crass and stupid, and now we are going to pretend you are worse than we are."

The thing is, a lot of members of the Legislature don't think Sansom did anything wrong. The whole outfit, and the House in particular, has been silent throughout the revelations, the investigation, the indictment and a critical grand jury report. There is a lot more "poor Ray" than there is outrage.

And yet, the House rules place an individual burden on each member:

By personal example and by admonition to colleagues whose behavior may threaten the honor of the lawmaking body, the member shall watchfully guard the responsibility of office and the responsibilities and duties placed on the member by the House.

Starting today, we will see how seriously they take the "admonition to colleagues" part. Not to dispute the Old Testament, but it's going to take more than "calmness" for the House to lay this to rest.

Florida House to judge former speaker Ray Sansom — and itself 08/03/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 7, 2009 2:35pm]
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