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Sansom defense fund makes some potential donors uneasy

TALLAHASSEE — The brother of indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom, concerned over the lawmaker's skyrocketing legal costs, is asking hundreds of "supporters, friends and friends of friends" to give money to a legal trust fund recently set up in Rep. Sansom's name.

"This case is very expensive, and Ray doesn't have the financial means to cover it," said Randy Sansom, a certified public accountant in Gulf Breeze who estimates the case will cost his brother $100,000. "I'm just trying to help him out as best I can."

But the solicitation for legal support, through a new trust monitored by Tampa CPA Nancy Watkins, is already making some elected officials uneasy.

Tallahassee lawyer Mark Herron, who has set up several such funds for elected officials, said the Legislature's 4-year-old ban on lobbyists' gifts has made creating such funds more difficult.

"There are inherent risks to this,'' he said.

Even one of Sansom's closest friends in the Legislature, House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, is so unsure about the implications that he wants legal advice. After getting the solicitation letter Wednesday, Cretul said he immediately took it to Karen Camechis, the House general counsel.

"I'm not a lawyer, and this could create some real complications, so I want her to look at this thing, so we can advise our members if they also are being asked to look at this," Cretul said. "There are rules and regulations, and I certainly hope Ray has taken that into consideration."

Sansom faces charges of perjury and falsifying state budget documents in connection with a $6 million airport hangar for the jet business of friend Jay Odom, who has since been indicted in the matter as well.

During the two years Sansom controlled the House budget, he secured about $35 million in extra or accelerated construction money for Northwest Florida College in Niceville, part of his Panhandle district. Questions about the money arose after Sansom accepted a $110,000 part-time job at the college on the same day last November that he became speaker of the House, one of Florida's most powerful political positions.

He resigned as speaker in February but remains a representative.

In his June 11 letter, Randy Sansom calls the indictment led by State Attorney Willie Meggs "politically motivated."

He writes: "The cost for this case will be approximately $100,000. Ray does not have the financial means to pay these fees and needs your help!"

Ray Sansom, who was aware of the solicitations, receives a salary of less than $30,000 a year as a lawmaker. He backed out of the six-figure position at Northwest Florida.

Sansom also isn't getting help from the state Republican Party.

"It has nothing to do with Ray Sansom personally," said state party chairman Jim Greer. "It's always been my position that as it relates to criminal matters, legal issues out of the norm, that the party under this chairmanship isn't going to pay for these costs."

By Wednesday the legal fund letters had landed in the hands of a few lobbyists. The state's gift ban prohibits lawmakers from seeking or receiving any gifts from lobbyists or their clients.

Watkins, the CPA handling the trust, said none of the letters were addressed to lobbyists.

"One of the people we addressed it to may have given a letter to a lobbyist," she said. "But we have researched the issue the best of our abilities. I was quite concerned when I heard a lobbyist might have received a letter."

Watkins said donations to the "Ray Sansom Legal Defense Trust" are already arriving.

State law will require Sansom to disclose donations of more than $100 that come from people other than lobbyists or clients.

Staff writers Alex Leary, Mary Ellen Klas and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

Sansom defense fund makes some potential donors uneasy 06/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2009 5:18pm]
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