Sansom's public meeting was held at member-only club

TALLAHASSEE — A meeting of college trustees that Rep. Ray Sansom helped set up last March was held at a members-only club, and caterers were told not to post signs directing the public to the private room.

Sansom and the board of trustees of Northwest Florida State College met in Tallahassee to discuss legislation that, once passed, elevated the school above traditional community colleges. State law requires that trustee meetings be held in public.

"For this particular event, they didn't want it open," said Robin Wharton, private events director for the University Center Club, where the meeting was held. It overlooks the football stadium on the campus of Florida State University.

Sansom, recently ousted as House speaker, arranged the meeting at the request of college president Bob Richburg, who asked that it be held in Tallahassee rather than in the school's hometown in Okaloosa County. Sansom is a member of the club and the event was booked as the "Sansom dinner," not under the Northwest Florida State College trustees.

A member who reserves space (there is no charge) can ask for signs to be placed in the building so people can find the room. But in this case, "the host requested no signs," Wharton said.

Sansom did not respond to an interview request and referred questions to the college.

A college spokeswoman, Sylvia Bryan, said it was her understanding that there were two signs — "One in the lobby and one outside the room with something along the lines of 'Welcome OWC trustees.' " (OWC is short for Okaloosa-Walton College, the school's former name.) Bryan did not attend the meeting. No one from the public was there, either.

Sansom's legislative scheduler, Dort Baltes, said in an e-mail there were no signs that listed Sansom's name. When told that the question referred to directional signs to the meeting, she resent her original message with an explanation: "Again, what we can confirm is the information listed below."

Sunshine Law

The disclosure casts new light on one of the controversial elements of Sansom's relationship with the school, which derailed his tenure as House speaker and triggered a grand jury investigation. Sansom also faces review by a House special investigator and the state Commission on Ethics.

Sansom, R-Destin, has previously described his role in the meeting as a mere participant and said, as he was the only lawmaker there, that the Sunshine Law on open meetings did not apply to him. The college contends it did not break the law, calling the meeting a legislative briefing.

"I believe very strongly in the Sunshine Law," Sansom said last month. "I've never not been accessible and available and open about everything that I'm working on."

Last month, the trustees approved a set of minutes created nearly 10 months after the meeting.

Attorney General Bill McCollum has called the events "very questionable" and turned it over to State Attorney Willie Meggs in Tallahassee, who is conducting a grand jury investigation into Sansom's dealings with the small Panhandle college. Sansom took a $110,000 part-time job there on Nov. 18, the same day he was sworn in as House speaker.

Questions mount

He quit the job amid swirling questions over millions in construction money he got for the school in the two years before he became speaker, when he was the top budget writer in the House. He also had helped secure passage of the legislation, eagerly sought by Richburg, that was the focus of the secretive trustee meeting.

On Monday, his Republican colleagues in the House effectively removed him as speaker, saying he needed to focus on his legal matters.

The University Center Club is run by a private company, ClubCorp, under a lease from the Seminole Boosters. It occupies 3½ floors at Doak Campbell Stadium and boasts a number of private rooms.

The Sansom event was in the University Room, described as "the smallest of the private dining rooms on the 5th floor and perfect for small meetings, gatherings and private events." It can hold no more than 30 people.

ClubCorp would not let a reporter see the room Wednesday and it would not release records about the March 24 event.

The meeting itself was first reported by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau in December after e-mails obtained in a public records request showed Sansom and Richburg discussing the need to meet.

"Think about a meeting in Tall. with you, the trustees of (the college), and me to talk about the proposed college change and the system questions," Richburg wrote Sansom on Feb. 12.

As a public school, a meeting of the trustees must be open to the public, which requires advertising the time and place so people can attend. The college did provide public notice, with an ad that was published one week before the meeting, in a newspaper in Okaloosa County, 150 miles from where the meeting would take place.

That was Richburg's idea: "It's probably the only way we can do it in privacy but with a public notice here," he wrote in his e-mail to Sansom.

Sansom quickly replied, "That would be great!! We can get a private room on the 6th floor at FSU. We can set the whole meeting up with Dort. Just give us the word."

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

Sansom's public meeting was held at member-only club 02/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 6, 2009 8:00am]

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