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State investigating university's trustees in Sansom case

TALLAHASSEE — The college trustees who hired House Speaker Ray Sansom have become part of a criminal investigation into his dealings with the school, over whether they violated the state's Sunshine Law, officials said Tuesday.

State Attorney Willie Meggs is investigating whether the Northwest Florida State College trustees improperly held a meeting in Tallahassee in March.

The only public notice for the meeting was published 150 miles away in Okaloosa County, and no minutes of what went on at the meeting were made public until earlier this month, when Sunshine Law questions were raised.

Sansom, R-Destin, helped arrange the meeting with college president Bob Richburg, who said in an e-mail exchange that it would be best to have "privacy" to discuss legislative issues.

Though Sansom didn't suggest the meeting, the development only adds to Sansom's troubles as he already is the target of a grand jury investigation that began Monday.

The inquiry centers on Sansom taking an unadvertised $110,000-per-year job at the college in November — the same day he became House speaker. The grand jury will look into whether it was a reward for millions in construction money Sansom funneled to the school. Sansom has said he did nothing wrong and that the tax dollars could not have gone to other areas of the ailing state budget.

On Tuesday, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum wrote a letter to the trustees and criticized their March meeting as very questionable and said it was reasonable to think it violated state law. He said the final opinion on that was up to a state attorney, and copied the letter to prosecutors in Tallahassee and the Panhandle, where the school is located.

Meggs and Bill Eddins, the state attorney in Pensacola, agreed that the matter should be folded into the investigation Meggs already has begun.

The college insists it did no wrong, but last week the trustees approved a set of minutes Richburg said he recently created to recount what happened at the meeting.

The college issued a statement Tuesday saying it appreciated McCollum's "guidance" and said it values the Sunshine Law. But the college said its "legal consultants believed beforehand and afterwards that there was no Government in the Sunshine violation."

Sansom noted last week that he was the only lawmaker there and is not subject to the Sunshine Law. He defended the meeting as productive, calling it one of the best he has attended, and said it has been misunderstood.

"The community college didn't meet in private, they advertised the meeting in Okaloosa County because people in Okaloosa County wouldn't read the Tallahassee Democrat about meetings for their college," he told reporters last week.

Sansom compared it to delegation meetings in which members meet in Tallahassee and advertise back in their hometown newspaper. "I believe very strongly in the Sunshine Law."

Sansom and Richburg were working on legislation that would allow a handful of schools, including Northwest Florida, to offer an expanded array of bachelor degrees.

"Think about a meeting in Tall. with you, the trustees and me to talk about the proposed college change and the system questions," Richburg wrote Sansom in a Feb. 12 e-mail. "It's probably the only way we can do it in privacy but with a public notice here."

Sansom's response: "That would be great!! We can get a private room on the 6th floor at FSU."

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

State investigating university's trustees in Sansom case 01/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 5:28pm]
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