TALLAHASSEE — It has the potential of a bombshell: Some of the biggest names in Florida politics, including U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio, raising their hands and swearing to tell the truth about what they knew of state Rep. Ray Sansom's dealings with a Panhandle college.
But even as a House investigative panel voted Wednesday to issue scores of subpoenas, private talks were being held on a settlement in which Sansom could accept some level of responsibility in damaging public trust in the House.
The move would avoid a highly embarrassing trial not just for Sansom, R-Destin, but scores of other officials who would be exposed to intense media coverage. Nothing is certain, however, and previous attempts at a deal fell through.
Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, chairman of the five-member Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, confirmed he had a meeting Monday about a "potential resolution" with Sansom's attorney, Gloria Fletcher.
He said it was premature to suggest anything might be reached before the start of Sansom's hearing on Feb. 22. "We're well prepared to have a hearing on the matter," he added.
For a settlement to work, it would likely have to be less harsh than the toughest penalty Sansom could face (removal from office) but strong enough to satisfy those who think he acted improperly and should be punished.
Sansom, 47, is accused of damaging public confidence in the House by using his power to funnel millions to Northwest Florida State College and then taking a $110,000 part-time job there.
The committee on Wednesday approved Sansom's list of 35 potential witnesses. Six legislators are on the list including Sen. Mike Haridopolos, the Melbourne Republican slated to become Senate president for the 2011-12 sessions, and Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island. Both have jobs in the state college/university system, as do more than a dozen other lawmakers, so Sansom could be trying to assert that his situation is not unlike others.
Two former House members also could be called to testify: Joe Pickens, now president of St. Johns Community College in Palatka, and David Mealor, an associate vice president at the University of Central Florida. The Tampa-area woman who filed the complaint against Sansom, Susan T. Smith, is also a potential witness.
But the boldface name is Rubio, the Miami Republican who has garnered national attention in his run against Gov. Charlie Crist in the U.S. Senate primary. Rubio indicated Wednesday he would cooperate if asked to testify.
Sansom was then-House Speaker Rubio's handpicked budget chairman during 2007-08.
In that time, Sansom steered $35 million in extra or accelerated money to Northwest Florida State College. He took the job there on the same day in November 2008 that he replaced Rubio as speaker.
"If he is called and if he has any information that is useful, he'll be happy to provide it," Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Burgos said.
• • •
Parliamentarian rules prohibit subpoenaing senators. But they could be asked to voluntarily testify. Sen. Jones said he did not plan to, citing travel and other issues.
"I don't think the Senate should be involved in House business," Jones said. "I've got nothing to offer."
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he would testify if asked. In 2007, Gaetz was among the lawmakers who got a funding request for a $6 million emergency operations center at Destin Airport. He said the request by the city of Destin made no mention that developer and Sansom friend Jay Odom had proposed the idea and would use the building for his corporate jet business unless there was a storm.
That request was never funded. But Sansom put $6 million in the 2007 budget for an emergency operations and training center to be owned by Northwest Florida State College. He denied knowing about Odom's request.
That airport deal led to a grand jury indictment against Sansom, Odom and the former college president, Bob Richburg. The case is still in court.
Gaetz said he is working with Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, to change the rules to require any project that changes in use or scope late in the budget process to be disclosed before a final vote by the Legislature.
"Something like this ought to never happen again," Gaetz said. He called the airport project something that went from a "puppy to a pig."
The House panel has approved a list of witnesses prepared by the lawyer hired by the House to prosecute the case. They include numerous college officials and former Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, who worked with Sansom on budget matters.
• • •
Rubio has previously said he delegated responsibility to Sansom and that he was unaware of Odom's involvement. Even so, the House hearing is a politically dicey situation for Rubio.
Crist, who did not veto the airport project despite it being labeled a "turkey" by a budget watchdog group, said he too was unaware of the Odom connection.
Asked Wednesday whether it was a good thing that Rubio could be summoned as a witness and forced to testify, Crist said, "I'll leave that to the committee. ... But I'm sure chairman Galvano will do the right thing."
The Florida Democratic Party said Rubio's explanation is not good enough and brought up the unadvertised teaching job Rubio got at Florida International University as he was leaving office. While he was speaker, Rubio helped FIU get millions in funding. He denied playing favorites and said the funding was in line with other universities.
In an e-mail to reporters, party spokesman Eric Jotkoff wrote:
"Speaker Rubio can try to downplay the subpoena, but Sansom is about to throw his mentor under the bus."
Times/Herald staff writers John Frank and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.