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Sansom hires attorney Richard Coates to handle ethics complaint

House Speaker Ray Sansom has hired a well-known Tallahassee lawyer to defend him against an ethics complaint filed in connection with him taking a $110,000 job at his local college.

Richard Coates will represent Sansom, R-Destin, before the Florida Commission on Ethics, Sansom's spokeswoman, Jill Chamberlin, said Monday.

"He welcomes an independent review of this matter, and he's going to fully cooperate," Coates said of Sansom.

Earlier this month, David Plyer of Clearwater filed a complaint against Sansom, asserting his job was payback for helping Northwest Florida State College obtain millions in state funding.

The complaint cites a Florida statute that says no public officer shall "corruptly use or attempt to use his or her official position … to secure a special privilege, benefit or exemption for himself, herself or others."

Sansom, who did not respond to an interview request Monday, has previously defended the job and the money he has steered to the school. Despite a growing state deficit, he says the money cannot go to other budget areas.

He had said he simply got some funding accelerated, though at least one $6-million appropriation for a college building at Destin Airport was not part of a Department of Education master list of projects.

Saddled with widening controversy, Sansom has turned to one of the most practiced ethics attorneys in Florida.

In 2006, Coates represented then-state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who faced allegations he bought stocks of four companies that had state contracts or were regulated by his office.

The commission found probable cause Gallagher broke the law but dropped the case when he lost the Republican gubernatorial primary to Charlie Crist.

If the commission finds a violation occurred, it can recommend a fine or removal from office.

The commission next meets Jan. 23.

On Monday, Sansom's office also says it routinely deletes e-mails about its business dealings every month, in part because lawmakers have fewer restrictions on preserving their records than most of state government.

Sansom's deleted items folder has become an issue after reporters made public records requests for correspondence regarding the college, but nothing turned up in the search.

Chamberlin, the speaker's spokeswoman, said e-mails are purged every 30 days to free up server space and that the House gives each member a right to make decisions on whether to archive routine e-mails. She said the House policy does preserve fiscal, travel and personnel records and official bills.

In comparison with the other branches of government, the Legislature has few rules about what records must be kept and for how long. So while important e-mails sent to and from the governor are permanently archived and while even logs of 911 calls are kept for a year, there are no such rules for the Legislature.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Sansom hires attorney Richard Coates to handle ethics complaint 12/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, January 5, 2009 9:56am]

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