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Political heavyweights may be called as witnesses in House case against Sansom

Former House Speaker Marco Rubio and ex-Senate President Ken Pruitt could be called as witnesses in the House case against Rep. Ray Sansom, according to new documents that foreshadow a high profile, politically charged spectacle.

The names — and many others — were presented to Sansom's attorney by House prosecutor Melanie Hines. Sansom lawyer Richard Coates offered his own preliminary witness list that includes developer Jay Odom and former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg.

Sansom funneled millions of dollars to the Panhandle school before taking a $110,000 job there last November on the same day he was sworn in as speaker of the House. He later resigned amid a widening controversy and was ousted as speaker.

The Destin Republican insists he did nothing wrong but faces at least three investigations: The House inquiry, a criminal trial (a grand jury indicted him on official misconduct and perjury charges) and the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Sansom is accused of breaking House rules for his dealings with the college, which include obtaining funding for a $6 million building at Destin Airport where Odom at one point planned to store aircraft inside.

The House case is to be heard the week of Jan. 25. The panel could clear Sansom, offer a reprimand or call for him to be removed from office. A status update is scheduled for Dec. 10.

The potential inclusion of Rubio in particular will attract attention as he's running for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate against Gov. Charlie Crist. Rubio was speaker during the two years that Sansom funneled millions to the college.

The Miami Republican has said he delegated responsibility to his top budget chief, and there is no evidence Rubio knew a $6 million airport building could have benefited Odom's corporate jet business.

Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, was Senate president during the same time Rubio led the House. Pruitt was present when Sansom, Richburg and Odom flew together to visit Indian River Community College — a visit Richburg asserted was the impetus for the Destin Airport building, which the college said would be an emergency response and training center. It was to be built next to Odom's Destin Jet business.

"I can't tell you when they left there what was the motivation for what they did," Pruitt told the Times/Herald in May.

Crist, who is not on the witness list, did not veto the $6 million project in 2007 despite it being labeled a "turkey" by the Tallahassee budget group TaxWatch.

But Crist too said he did not know that it could potentially benefit a private individual. The $6 million project was embedded in the budget as "Okaloosa JT Use Emergency Response Workforce Center."

Said Rubio in June, "The nature of the problem here was not that we didn't know a certain project was in the budget; the nature of the problem was that it was called one thing and really was something else. There was no way to know that, unless at the staff level or some other level, someone is informing you of it."

Rep. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican heading the five-member House tribunal, cautioned Tuesday that the witness list is only a potential.

"The exchange of witness lists is a procedural operation to disclose people who may have information and may be called," he said "It does not mean that the names on the list are being called before the committee."

An intriguing witness could be former Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, who was Sansom's budget counterpart in 2007 and 2008. Carlton testified before the grand jury but the details of what she said are largely under court seal.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com

Political heavyweights may be called as witnesses in House case against Sansom 11/24/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 7:27pm]
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