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State House's history shows a reluctance to punish one of their own

TALLAHASSEE — The House investigation of the conduct of Rep. Ray Sansom is a rare and uncomfortable occurrence: The Legislature seldom turns its attention to punishing one of its own.

The dethroned Republican speaker from Destin is believed to be a first in the annals of the Legislature, too, as a presiding officer being investigated by his peers.

History shows such events can be tense and embarrassing as lawmakers judge a colleague's conduct under the glare of TV camera lights, while facing possible criticism that they went soft on a friend and colleague.

"It's a very difficult assignment," said Rep. Bill Galvano, the Republican lawyer from Bradenton heading the five-member Sansom panel. "You're sitting in judgment of a colleague, a peer and a friend."

Sansom faces state criminal charges as a result of his budget dealings involving a questionable construction project at a local college that briefly hired him for a six-figure job. But only the House itself can remove him from office.

As the rules governing the House state: "The House shall exercise its right to be the sole judge of the qualifications, elections, and returns of its members."

The last major case with parallels to the Sansom inquiry happened nearly two decades ago and is remembered mostly for its salaciousness.

Rep. Fred Lippman, a Hollywood Democrat, was stripped of his House majority leader's post and publicly admonished in 1991 after a female legislative staff member complained in 1987 of sexual harassment, including unwanted sexual advances. The penalty followed a harsh grand jury report, and a select committee of six legislators deadlocked 3-3 on whether to recommend punishment.

In 1988, the House paid the aide $47,000 of state money in a failed attempt to silence the employee.

In the aftermath, the House adopted its first official policy on sexual harassment. The House journal, the official state record for the date of the admonishment, April 15, 1991, omits any mention of it.

In 1977, Sen. Ralph Poston, a Miami Democrat, was reprimanded and fined $500 for misusing his Senate position for private gain to generate business for his wheelchair ambulance business. The Senate found that he violated two Senate rules and two state laws.

Two of Poston's fellow Democrats felt he should have been expelled, and the citizens' lobby Common Cause said Poston got off easy.

So sensitive was the Senate to Poston's misdeeds that then-Senate President Lew Brantley delayed moving into the new Capitol until the case was resolved.

News accounts at the time said Poston was the first legislator to be disciplined since 1872, when Sen. Charles Pearce was expelled for accepting a bribe.

Other noteworthy cases involving select committees include:

• In 1985, Rep. John Thomas of Jacksonville was censured after his conviction for making false statements on a loan application.

• In 1973, Rep. Richard Price of St. Petersburg was reprimanded for soliciting clients as a private investigator on House letterhead.

• In 1961, Rep. E. Bert Riddle of Westville was expelled from the House after he was accused of sending an indecent note to a 12-year-old page.

In Sansom's case, the legislative process itself is on trial in a sense. As longtime Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book says, the case is different from earlier cases that focused narrowly on a lawmaker's personal behavior.

"This goes to the way the process operated," Book said. "It's the fundamentals of how the system works or doesn't work, and whether it's broken or not. I just think the dynamics here are different."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Two cases

State Rep. Fred Lippman, D-Hollywood: accused of sexual harassment by female staff member in 1987; stripped of House majority leader post and publicly admonished in 1991.

State Sen. Ralph Poston, D-Miami: accused of misusing position for private gain in 1977; reprimanded and fined $500.

State House's history shows a reluctance to punish one of their own 08/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 4, 2009 3:15pm]
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