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House panel won't delay Sansom inquiry

TALLAHASSEE — A House committee investigating Rep. Ray Sansom's conduct voted Thursday to move forward, dismissing requests by Sansom's lawyers for a delay until after his criminal trial.

The five-member Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct took the advice of its independent counsel, who said it was in the public interest that the investigation go forward. Counsel Melanie Hines also said Sansom's lawyers failed to show that the House inquiry would harm Sansom's right to a fair trial.

Sansom did not attend Thursday's hearing. The former House speaker from Destin is awaiting trial on a charge of perjury stemming from a state grand jury inquiry into his efforts to secure legislative funds for a building at Northwest Florida State College.

A private citizen, Susan Smith, 59, of Odessa, filed the complaint against Sansom, accusing him of violating House rules designed to maintain public confidence in the integrity and independence of the legislative process. She alleged Sansom violated a House rule that states that a legislative office "is a trust to be performed with integrity in the public interest."

An investigator hired by the House found probable cause in June that Sansom violated House rules by steering $6 million in taxpayer funds for construction of an airport building on the college's Niceville campus.

Sansom's attorney, Stephen Dobson III, urged the committee to delay its work until after Sansom's trial, saying the high level of media coverage of the House investigation could make it difficult to empanel an impartial jury.

The committee, acting on Hines' advice, rejected that idea, saying Sansom's attorneys suggested only the "potential" for the House hearing to jeopardize the criminal case.

A state judge has dismissed two of the three criminal charges against Sansom, and State Attorney Willie Meggs is appealing that order. Sansom's attorneys have asked the First District Court of Appeal to dismiss Meggs' appeal, citing a lack of jurisdiction.

The five-member select committee, chaired by Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, also approved an expedited timetable for investigating Sansom's conduct. Sansom is required to file a formal answer to the charges against him by Nov. 15, and both sides will exchange preliminary witness lists by Nov. 20.

All pretrial discovery, such as depositions and document collection, must be complete by Dec. 24. The two sides must file a stipulation on agreed-on facts by Jan. 15 and the week of Jan. 25-29 has been reserved to hear the case.

The committee's decision could result in exoneration, reprimand or expulsion from the House.

"Being very candid, this is not a pleasant job for any of the members of this panel. It's not why we ran for office. But we have a job to do, and we will do it," Galvano said. "He is entitled to defend himself before this panel, and they are entitled to present witnesses, so we'll see."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

House panel won't delay Sansom inquiry 11/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 5, 2009 10:56pm]
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