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Inquiries heat up for Sansom

Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom got aid for college and then job.

Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom got aid for college and then job.

TALLAHASSEE — For House Speaker Ray Sansom, plagued by two ethics complaints and a possible state attorney investigation into allegations he misused his public office, this may be a week of reckoning.

Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs plans to impanel a grand jury Monday that will hear two citizen complaints alleging Sansom, R-Destin, violated state ethics and corruption laws by using his office to benefit a Destin developer and to win a lucrative community college job. Meggs expects the panel to decide Monday if it wants to investigate, he told the Times/Herald.

The Florida Commission on Ethics is considering an official misconduct complaint against the speaker. The Clearwater man who filed the complaint, Dave Plyer, a Democrat, said he was told Friday that the complaint was found "legally sufficient'' and was under review. The commission, which met Friday, now must decide whether there is probable cause to continue hearing the complaint.

A third investigation, by Sansom's own House Rules Committee, is continuing to examine allegations that the speaker "damaged the integrity of the House."

At the same time, Attorney General Bill McCollum has said he is looking into a potential violation of the state's open government laws in connection with a meeting Sansom held with college officials.

Sansom has hired Tallahassee criminal defense lawyer Peter Antonacci, a former statewide prosecutor. Antonacci confirmed that he has been in contact with Meggs as well as Thomas Kirwin, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District.

One critic has compared Sansom's troubles to those of embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But Sansom and his defenders say the investigations will prove his innocence.

"Everything we did was more than above board," Sansom told the Times/Herald last week, after a month of refusing to answer questions on the issue. He argues that he was just serving his constituents when he steered $35-million in school construction money to Northwest Florida State College, then took a $110,000 part-time job at the college. The funding was in excess of what state education officials had sought.

College officials and Sansom acknowledge they worked together to secure $6-million for the college to build a school facility on airport property controlled by Destin developer Jay Odom, a Sansom friend and major political donor. They say allegations that Odom intended to use the building for his benefit are false.

The legal issues behind the complaints are not so black and white.

Meggs said he refers all citizen complaints to the grand jury and lets grand jurors decide.

"If they are interested, we'll assign an investigator to start assembling witnesses and bringing people in," he said.

He said witnesses would be asked "What were you gonna do with the airport hangar, and things like that."

Meggs was asked to take the case to the grand jury by Plyer, the Democrat from Clearwater, and Ray Bellamy, a Republican from Tallahassee. Bellamy, a retired Florida State University professor and surgeon, has called for Sansom's resignation and bought a full-page ad in the Tallahassee Democrat that makes a reference to the Blagojevich controversy, asking: "What is the difference between selling a U.S. Senate seat for [$500,000] and the actions of Sansom?"

Sansom is confident investigators will find nothing. If charges are pursued, he predicts he will be exonerated.

"I'm very proud of what we did," he said. "I have nothing in the world to hide. … I was just a legislator trying to represent my district, to get money."

For Sansom to be proven guilty of official misconduct, state laws require proof of a quid pro quo. That means he either received or was promised something of value in return for his public actions and there was an agreement reached ahead of time.

Retired State Attorney Harry Shorstein of Jacksonville believes that "Florida law has made it more difficult to bring public corruption charges against public officials."

Public corruption cases brought under federal law are often easier to prove than those brought under narrower Florida laws, he said.

"It used to be you would bribe elected officials with five $100 bills in an envelope under the table in return for zoning or something," said Shorstein, who retired in December after 18 years as state attorney in Jacksonville. "That has been replaced with political actions … in return for an appointment or your vote: I will help you and you will help me."

Shorstein commended Meggs for bringing the issue to the grand jury "because there is a cloud over the process based on what the media has reported."

He said the grand jury has several options: do nothing; find probable cause of criminal wrongdoing and issue an indictment; or write a report called a presentment "to explain to the public exactly what's occurred, make recommendations to the Legislature, city and county and make sure things like this don't occur in the future."

Among the issues the grand jury might consider:

• Did Sansom misuse state funds for private purpose?

Sansom and the college acknowledge that they steered state school construction money into an expedited project for the college to build an airport facility at Destin Jet, owned by Odom.

School officials say the building will be used as a stormproof storage facility for emergency equipment, as the county's Emergency Operations Center during hurricanes, and for public safety courses during the school year. But a trail of documents and interviews by the Times/Herald with local officials indicate that the concept of the airport facility was the same as the building Odom proposed to store his jets.

Sansom argues that he was serving his constituents and that while Odom may once have sought public money to finance the building, "no private person will use that building for anything other than to pursue an education."

• Did Sansom get the job in return for helping the college?

After Sansom steered the $35-million to the college, he accepted the $110,000 part-time job as a vice president for development at the college. The position was unadvertised and he was the only applicant.

Sansom said he first discussed the job with the college last summer and had intended to work full time in 2010, when he retires from the Legislature because of term limits.

State law does not prohibit legislators from working for public entities that take state money. Sansom said he "saw no legal or ethical problems with working at the college during my last two years in the Legislature,'' but he resigned from the post anyway, saying he "could not allow controversy over my private employment to distract the Legislature."

•Did Sansom and college officials try to avoid public scrutiny by moving a meeting to Tallahassee and failing to keep a record of the meeting?

While working on legislation to help the college become a four-year institution, Sansom and college officials scheduled a public meeting in Tallahassee but announced it in Niceville. The meeting was moved because it was "the only way we can do it in privacy but with a public notice here," the college president said in an e-mail to Sansom.

State law requires any public agency to provide notice of any public meeting, conduct the meeting in an accessible public building and keep minutes. Sansom has said that the meeting was initiated by the college and that as a lawmaker he is not subject to the same open meeting requirements.

But First Amendment Foundation attorney Adria Harper said questions remain. If it can be proved that Sansom and college officials intentionally tried to get around the open government law, they could be subject to criminal penalties or fines, she said.

The fact that minutes weren't approved until last week also raises questions about their intent, she said.

"It's a debacle either way," Harper said. "There should have been adequate notice and minutes should have been taken."

Times/Herald staff writers Lucy Morgan and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Inquiries heat up for Sansom 01/24/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 11:28am]
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