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Grand jury may investigate House Speaker Sansom

House Speaker Ray Sansom had no comment.

House Speaker Ray Sansom had no comment.

TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Ray Sansom's troubles deepened Wednesday when a North Florida prosecutor said he will ask a grand jury whether it wants to investigate the lawmaker's dealings.

State Attorney Willie Meggs said he has not looked into the circumstances surrounding Sansom's hiring by Northwest Florida State College after he funneled tens of millions in state construction money to the school. But Meggs has received two citizen complaints and will submit them to a Leon County grand jury for consideration.

The grand jurors will be empaneled Jan. 26 in a courthouse across the street from the state Capitol.

If the jurors vote to investigate, "we'll develop a plan,'' Meggs told the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau.

Sansom's legislative spokeswoman, Jill Chamberlin, said the state attorney had not contacted Sansom. "If he does, the speaker will respond," she said.

Meggs would not identify the people who complained, but the Times/Herald has confirmed that they are David Plyer, a Democrat from Clearwater who last month filed an ethics complaint against Sansom, and Ray Bellamy, a Republican from Tallahassee who has taken out newspaper ads condemning Sansom and calling for an investigation.

At issue is Sansom's relationship with the small college in his hometown. The school hired him as an administrator with an annual salary of $110,000, a job that was never advertised, on the same day in November that Sansom became House speaker.

Since then, the Times/Herald has detailed how Sansom, as chief budget writer in the House, showered the school with $35-million in extra construction money in a two-year period.

"Please investigate allegations that Ray Sansom, employed as the District 4 representative to the Florida State Legislature, used in excess of 30 million dollars of the public's money for personal gain. Sansom funneled this money to Northwest Florida State College in the past several years. In return, that college hired Sansom at an annual salary of $110,000," Plyer asserted in an e-mail to Meggs on Tuesday.

Sansom has said he has done nothing improper, and he resigned the college post Monday in an effort to stem the controversy. Neither Sansom nor his attorney, Richard Coates, responded to a request for comment Wednesday.

Among other projects for the school, Sansom put $6-million into the budget in 2007 to build an emergency operations center at Destin Airport. The college plans to train students in emergency response there and let local personnel use the two-story building as a staging area in times of emergency.

The airport building is the focus of Bellamy's complaint, which he submitted in a phone call to Meggs on Monday.

"The airport hangar just seems criminally corrupt," Bellamy said in an interview Wednesday.

The Times/Herald has reported that the $6-million college project is virtually identical to a hangar that a Sansom friend and contributor had sought to build with state money. Jay Odom wanted a hangar to store jets for his private flight business but sought $6-million in public funding by offering to let emergency workers use it in times of crisis.

Odom didn't get the funding, but soon after, Sansom put $6-million into the state budget for an airport building to be owned by the college.

Although Sansom and school officials say the two projects aren't connected, the school plans to break ground on the facility in March using site plans that follow an outline Odom had drawn up for his project.

It will be located where Odom wanted his hangar, and an employee of Odom's jet business told the Times/Herald that the company did plan to use the college building to store its larger jets. Odom later denied that and said his employee was "confused."

After the grand jury is assembled, Meggs said, he will give the complaints to jurors, leave the room and let them decide whether the matter should be investigated.

Meggs said Wednesday that he uses "a grand jury as a citizens committee. I try to tell them, 'Here are the facts, the law, your responsibility,' and ask them what they think.''

The last time Meggs asked a grand jury to look into legislative deal-making was in 1991, and 24 lawmakers were charged with taking illegal gifts and trips from lobbyists.

The grand jury sharply criticized lawmakers for taking exotic trips and gifts from lobbyists and recommended that they all be charged with crimes. Jurors also urged legislators to adopt simple laws forbidding the acceptance of gifts valued at more than $50, which happened in 2005.

Meggs, a conservative 65-year-old Democrat in office since 1985, said he has frequently asked grand juries as a citizens committee to decide what the state should do and routinely puts every police shooting in his jurisdiction before a jury.

Also Wednesday, another ethics complaint was filed against Sansom by a Tampa-area woman. Susan Smith, a Democratic activist from Odessa, cited a House rule stating that lawmakers "shall respect and comply with the law and shall perform at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and independence of the House and of the Legislature."

Her complaint is directed to the chairman of the House Rules and Calendar Council, Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

Plyer's earlier complaint was sent to the Florida Commission on Ethics. It meets Jan. 23.

Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263 .

Grand jury may investigate House Speaker Sansom 01/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 10:40pm]
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