Ray Sansom is left with little to do but defend himself

A year ago, Rep. Ray Sansom gave his first news conference as speaker of the state House.

ALEX LEARY | Times (2008)

A year ago, Rep. Ray Sansom gave his first news conference as speaker of the state House.

On Nov. 5, 2008, Ray Sansom pulled up a chair before a swarm of reporters and essentially began his term as speaker of the Florida House, exulting in Republican success at the polls the night before and staring down a $2 billion budget deficit.

"It's going to be a tough one, no question about it," he said of the coming year.

A few weeks later, those words would prove brutally true. Sansom, one of the three most powerful politicians in Florida, saw his reign collapse after taking a high-paying job at his hometown college, exposing $35 million in tax money he funneled to the school.

Now, precisely one year later, a special House committee will decide this morning whether to continue its investigation into whether Sansom broke the rules, a tribunal that could result in exoneration, reprimand or expulsion from office. An investigator found probable cause of wrongdoing in several areas. Sansom's lawyer has asked for a delay because a criminal case involving the same issues is unresolved.

If the five-member Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which includes three Republicans and two Democrats, decides to proceed, a hearing would be held the week of Jan. 25.

Sansom is accused of using his influence as budget chairman to manipulate the state budget and get favors for Northwest Florida State College, including $6 million for an airport building that a grand jury and the House investigator concluded was intended to benefit a private developer and major GOP contributor, Jay Odom.

In addition, he faces questions over the millions he got for a "leadership institute" at the school that he was to oversee as a part-time college employee, as well as a secretive meeting Sansom and now former college president Bob Richburg set up with the college trustees in Tallahassee, 150 miles from the college campus in Okaloosa County in the Panhandle. The trustees are supposed to meet in public.

Sansom, who declined interview requests, says he did nothing wrong.

But the ordeal has already exacted a price on the 47-year-old lawmaker, who was a portrait of poise during his first news conference a year ago.

Sansom has been rendered a sort of nonlegislator legislator. His colleagues are in Tallahassee this week for committee meetings, but Sansom has no committee to call home. He has not filed any bills. After resigning his college job and losing its $110,000 annual salary, he relies on his roughly $30,000 legislative salary as legal bills accumulate.

Back home in Destin, though, Sansom has given a speech to the Chamber of Commerce and been seen at restaurants. His spirits lifted, at least somewhat, after a judge dismissed part of the criminal case. He still has considerable community support.

"Almost invariably if Ray's name comes up people shake their head and say, 'He's really a nice guy, I'm sorry this has happened to him,' " said state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a friend who is critical of some of Sansom's actions.

"He got caught up in this whole issue of the airport hangar," said Destin lawyer David Pleat, a Democratic candidate for a House seat near Sansom's district. "But there were other people involved in that, too. Does that help him put the pieces back together? Probably not. That's what happens when you prejudge people. Everyone needs to stop throwing stones here."

It's possible various investigations — including one by the Florida Commission on Ethics and an inquiry by the FBI — could extend into the 2010 session, beginning in March, which is to be Sansom's eighth and final due to term limits.

Some Republicans, including those in his district, want Sansom to resign.

"The citizens he's supposed to be representing are not being represented," said John Salak, chairman of the Bay County Republican Party, which approved a motion in September calling on Sansom to resign because his actions brought "shame and disgrace upon all of us fellow Republicans."

Sansom and his defenders remain steadfast.

He planned to meet with Bay County Republicans last week to explain why he should not resign. "I was really surprised," Salak said. "I was like okay, walk into the lion's den." But Sansom later canceled because his criminal case is still active.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis in Tallahassee recently dismissed part of an official misconduct charge against Sansom and his co-defendants, developer Odom and former college president Richburg, saying the statute was unconstitutional when applied to the legislative branch and budget decisions.

State Attorney Willie Meggs is seeking an appeal, and other aspects of the case remain on hold until the appeal is resolved. That could take months, making it more awkward for the House as the legislative session approaches.

•••

For now, focus has shifted back to the Florida House, which Lewis suggested was the proper forum to deliver a penalty.

"It is natural to want to punish those involved," Lewis wrote in his Oct. 5 decision. "But not every wrongful conduct is a crime. Sometimes the remedy for such conduct must be political rather than judicial. This is one of those situations."

Sansom's attorney, Steve Dobson, sent House Speaker Larry Cretul a letter asking that the proceedings be put on hold.

"At this time, any investigation undertaken by the independent counsel of the committee has the potential to jeopardize Representative Sansom's criminal case and perpetuate the creation of unduly prejudicial pretrial media coverage which could prevent Representative Sansom from obtaining an impartial jury panel," Dobson wrote.

Cretul, R-Ocala, referred the letter to the special committee chairman, Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who said the panel will take it up this morning.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

Time line of the Sansom case

. Nov. 18, 2008: Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, is sworn in as speaker of the Florida House. That same day he takes a job at Northwest Florida State College.

. Nov. 19: College announces Sansom job.

. Dec. 7: St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau, after reporting millions Sansom secured for the school, documents connection between a private developer's request for a state-funded airplane hangar and $6 million in funding Sansom got for an airport building to be used by the college.

. Jan. 5, 2009: Under widespread pressure, Sansom quits college job.

. Jan. 26: Grand jury decides to investigate.

. Feb. 2: House Republicans vote to replace Sansom as speaker with Rep. Larry Cretul of Ocala.

. April 17: Grand jury indicts Sansom on felony official misconduct charge related to airport funding.

. April 28: College trustees give up on airport project, return money to state.

. May 27: Grand jury issues additional indictment, adding perjury charge for Sansom and adds charges for college president Bob Richburg and developer Jay Odom.

. June 26: Investigator finds probable cause that Sansom damaged "faith and confidence" in the Florida House. A legislative panel is convened to hear the case.

. Oct. 5: Circuit Judge Terry Lewis throws out part of the charges against Sansom. State Attorney Willie Meggs seeks appeal.

Ray Sansom is left with little to do but defend himself 11/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 5, 2009 1:11am]

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