TALLAHASSEE — A legislative committee investigating Rep. Ray Sansom will proceed slowly, citing the Panhandle lawmaker's scheduled trial next month on criminal charges related to his dealings with a college and a developer involving millions in tax dollars.
The chairman of the Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the House inquiry is hampered by the reluctance of Sansom and other witnesses to give sworn testimony while awaiting trial.
"It's a very reasonable request, given the pending criminal trial, for Fifth Amendment purposes and for strategic purposes to ask that this committee not move forward," Galvano said, in reference to a request by Sansom's lawyer that the committee delay its work.
Sansom, a former House speaker, is believed to be the first legislator who was a presiding officer to face the formal scrutiny of his colleagues. If the panel agrees with a special investigator that Sansom, 47, violated the House rules of conduct, he would face a penalty ranging from reprimand to expulsion.
Any punishment must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the full House in the spring 2010 session.
The panel did make one decision at its first meeting: It will seek an independent lawyer to serve as prosecutor as the five-member panel considers whether Sansom's conduct warrants punishment by his peers.
The proceedings Tuesday were triggered by a January complaint by Susan Smith of Odessa, who said her respect for the House was "greatly diminished" by Sansom's actions.
The House inquiry marks the fourth forum in which Sansom's conduct is under investigation. He is scheduled to stand trial in state court Sept. 29 on charges of official misconduct and perjury and is a subject of a Commission on Ethics complaint. The FBI is investigating Sansom's dealings as well.
Special investigator Steve Kahn, a former Senate general counsel, found probable cause that Sansom violated House rules in three separate cases: a meeting of the Northwest Florida State College trustees that skirted Florida's open meeting laws; the state funding of a $750,000 college leadership institute that Sansom, a Destin Republican, was to have directed; and a $6 million state appropriation for a college building, made when Sansom was House budget chairman, that would have benefited real estate developer Jay Odom.
"Whether Rep. Sansom knew he was involving himself in an appropriation that would directly benefit one of Mr. Odom's companies will likely be the central topic in your deliberations," Kahn said.
Kahn's highly detailed 328-page report draws a direct connection between Sansom's zeal to secure state funds for the college and his acceptance of a $110,000 college job on the day he became speaker last year. The report includes a chart showing 15 characteristics of a quid pro quo, or something given in exchange for something else. Kahn told the committee that the timing "created an appearance of a quid pro quo."
Sansom did not attend Tuesday's hourlong proceeding but was represented by Tallahassee lawyer Richard Coates, who declined to comment at length.
The committee's next planned meeting is the week of Oct. 5. Besides Galvano, the select committee comprises Republican Reps. Faye Culp of Tampa and Rich Glorioso of Plant City, and Democratic Reps. Joe Gibbons of Hallandale Beach and Ari Porth of Coral Springs.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.