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Former prosecutor to guide House inquiry into Sansom

TALLAHASSEE — A legislative committee investigating state Rep. Ray Sansom's conduct voted Wednesday to hire a special prosecutor to spell out the case against the former House speaker.

Melanie Ann Hines, a former statewide prosecutor who investigated fraud and questionable business practices, will help Samson's House colleagues determine whether the Destin Republican violated House rules. At issue is whether his actions as a former budget chairman regarding a hometown college and a building that would have benefited a developer friend violated the rules of conduct for lawmakers.

The five-member panel could exonerate Sansom or recommend a penalty ranging from a reprimand to expulsion from the House.

"This committee is moving forward with its work," said the panel's chairman, Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. He said Hines' first job would be to craft an outline to serve as a guide for the committee's work, which will resume next month.

Hines will act as a special prosecutor for the Sansom committee, formally known as the Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The panel has the power to subpoena records and witnesses, and plans to finish its work before the regular 2010 session begins in March. Any recommendation will be sent to the full 120-member House for final action.

Wednesday's action follows a 79-page report in June by a House special investigator, Steve Kahn, who found probable cause that Sansom violated House rules and damaged the "faith and integrity" of the House. Kahn's report was based on a complaint by a Tampa-area citizen, Susan Smith, who accused Sansom of violating House rules by taking a job at a college after steering millions in state funds to the school.

Sansom resigned from the $110,000 job in January.

In a separate proceeding, a grand jury indicted Sansom on three charges. But on Monday, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis dismissed charges of official misconduct and perjury filed against Sansom by State Attorney Willie Meggs. A second perjury charge remains, and Sansom's trial is scheduled for Oct. 26. Meggs has asked Attorney General Bill McCollum to appeal Lewis' dismissal of charges.

Hines, 54, of Tallahassee, was statewide prosecutor from 1991 to 2003. Hired by Attorney General Bob Butterworth, she oversaw numerous statewide grand jury investigations on matters ranging from Medicaid fraud to identity theft to interactions between utility lobbyists and members of the Public Service Commission.

Hines is now in private practice and affiliated with the law firm Berger Singerman. Partner Mitchell Berger is a former finance chairman of the Florida Democratic Party who played a leading role in Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign in Florida. The firm is not currently registered to lobby for any clients before the Florida Legislature.

Hines, a registered Democrat, has contributed $4,250 in recent years to the Florida Democratic Party, the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry and the 2006 re-election campaign of Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

Despite Hines' Democratic leanings, Galvano said he had complete faith in her impartiality. "I think her reputation speaks for itself," Galvano said. "This is not a question of it being Republican or Democrat. I think we looked for who was a qualified person, and who committee members would be comfortable with."

House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, will negotiate terms of Hines' employment, including an hourly billing rate.

"I believe the committee wants to move forward expeditiously but fairly," Hines said. "I will do my best to meet their expectations."

Sansom's attorney, Richard Coates, did not respond to a request for comment on the choice of Hines as independent prosecutor.

Times/Herald staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Former prosecutor to guide House inquiry into Sansom 10/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2009 11:37pm]

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