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At investigator's urging, House will look into Sansom's dealings

Former House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, shown in a booking mug, faces sanctions from peers.

Former House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, shown in a booking mug, faces sanctions from peers.

TALLAHASSEE — State Rep. Ray Sansom, already indicted by a grand jury, now faces disciplinary action from his colleagues after an investigator Friday found probable cause that he damaged "faith and confidence" in the Florida House.

The findings, based on the tens of millions of dollars Sansom funneled to a Panhandle college and his role in funding an airport building wanted by a private developer, will trigger a House tribunal that could recommend sanctions, including removal from office.

"It stinks, but we have to look at what was done," said Rep. J.C. Planas, R-Miami, who was elected with Sansom in 2002. "This is obviously something that's very painful for the House."

Susan Smith, the Tampa area Democratic activist who filed the complaint against Sansom after reading newspaper stories, said she was glad action was being taken. "Mr. Sansom has been a huge embarrassment," Smith said. "The whole process needs to be cleaned up."

A state grand jury has already indicted Sansom on charges of official misconduct and perjury.

The Destin Republican also faces an ongoing state ethics investigation over his actions with Northwest Florida State College, which culminated in his taking a part-time, $110,000 a year job on the same day last November that he was sworn in as House speaker.

"It is my view that a reasonable person would conclude that his employment was designed primarily to take advantage of his position as Speaker to the benefit of the college and the salary was direct compensation for Representative Sansom's official acts as a member and Speaker on behalf of the college and its President," investigator Steve Kahn wrote in his 75-page report released Friday afternoon.

College President Bob Richburg, who has since been fired, never advertised the job and did not include it on a meeting agenda, saying there was no time. But he began discussing the hiring with college trustees at least a month before the hiring.

"I'm gonna blow your socks off," he told an unidentified trustee in September, according Kahn's report. "I am going to hire Ray Sansom."

The trustee seemed concerned and asked, "What will our enemies say?" according to Kahn's report. "It will be in the paper a couple of days and will blow over," Richburg replied.

It did not. A series of reports by the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau showed Sansom and Richburg had been collaborating well before the job offer.

They worked on funding and getting favorable legislation passed, and discussed the airport building along with developer Jay Odom.

Kahn's report emphasizes those connections. He concluded that Sansom used his power as the top House budget writer to get tens of millions in additional funding for his future employer, Northwest Florida State College, including $7.5 million for a leadership institute that Sansom was to oversee as an employee.

That money was just part of a $25.5 million reward Sansom worked into the 2008 budget. The college was supposed to get $1 million.

Sansom and his then-Senate counterpart, Republican Lisa Carlton of Osprey, refused to talk with Kahn about any deals they made to supersize the funding. Kahn, a former Senate lawyer, also faced reluctance from other elected officials.

Kahn homed in on the $6 million building at Destin Airport.

In 2007, Sansom quietly inserted the money into the budget and said it would be used by the college to train emergency workers and also serve as a staging area during major storms. But Kahn — as did the grand jury — found evidence it was a gift to Sansom's friend and political contributor Jay Odom.

Odom, who is also under indictment, as is Richburg, had been trying to get the state to pay for an airplane hangar he would use for his private jet operation at Destin Airport.

Kahn found probable cause that a private meeting Sansom helped set up of the college trustees also eroded faith in the House. The meeting took place in March 2008 at a private club at Florida State University, where Sansom and Richburg discussed legislation, which eventually passed, to create a new tier of state colleges.

The secretive nature and a failure to alter a direction that no signs be placed outside make "evident their mutual intent to remove discussions from public view which were required to be in it," Kahn wrote.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, the Ocala Republican who replaced Sansom just before the legislative session began in March, named a five-member panel that will examine the circumstances and recommend action, which could include removing Sansom from office.

Three panel members are Republicans and two are Democrats.

The chairman of the committee, Rep. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, is an obvious choice because he is chairman of the Rules and Calendar Council and is the arbiter on all procedural matters.

The other Republicans are both from Hillsborough County: Rep. Faye Culp, a retired teacher and former School Board member, and Rep. Rich Glorioso, a retired Air Force pilot.

Both Democrats are from Broward: Ari Porth of Coral Springs, who is a prosecutor with the Broward State Attorney's Office, and Joe Gibbons of Hallandale Beach, who is a business development officer for the Akerman Senterfitt law firm. Gibbons also is the immediate past president of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators.

"For me it's an honor," Gibbons said. "I'm coming into this with a completely open mind. I don't have the facts. I say innocent until proven guilty."

Galvano said the fact that criminal charges are pending against Sansom complicates the investigation. "There are Fifth Amendment issues that probably will come into play."

The committee has subpoena power, but he said he did not know whether Sansom could be compelled to testify before the select committee.

"The research has not been done on that," Galvano said. "You're talking about a constitutional right against self-incrimination, which would seem to prevail."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

At investigator's urging, House will look into Sansom's dealings 06/26/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 4:23pm]
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