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Rep. Ray Sansom's House disciplinary hearing on track to start Monday

TALLAHASSEE — Unable to reach a deal to avert a spectacle that could embarrass some of the state's top politicians, the Florida House plans to begin its disciplinary hearing of Rep. Ray Sansom next week.

A five-member panel agreed Thursday to begin the tribunal at 10 a.m. Monday and has left the week open for testimony, if needed.

A settlement could be reached over the weekend, but both sides say they are ready to proceed.

"Those type of negotiations probably will continue … but there's a lot of work that has to be done for these parties to be ready for trial," said Rep. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who chairs the panel.

Sansom, R-Destin, is accused of violating House ethics rules in his dealings with Northwest Florida State College, where he took a six-figure job after funneling the school $35 million in taxpayer money. He has denied wrongdoing, but an independent investigator hired by the House found probable cause that he broke rules.

The Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct met briefly Thursday afternoon to set the schedule for the hearing. Galvano said he was withdrawing subpoenas for two men whom Sansom allegedly conspired with to get money for a $6 million airplane hangar in Destin.

Developer Jay Odom and former college president Bob Richburg have said they will invoke their constitutional right not to testify because they are the subjects of a criminal case into similar issues. Sansom is also expected to take the Fifth Amendment, though he will attend the hearing.

Still, there could be plenty of drama.

Sansom has scheduled as witnesses several current and former lawmakers, including former House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, and future Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melboune.

Both men, and others, say they will testify if needed. But the mere fact of being put under oath in a messy ethics investigation could prove uncomfortable, particularly for Rubio, who is surging in his U.S. Senate race against Gov. Charlie Crist.

Among the potential witnesses for House prosecutor Melanie Hines is former Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, who worked closely with Sansom in putting together the state budgets in 2007 and 2008. Carlton has told investigators that had she known the $6 million could have benefited Odom's corporate jet business, she would not have signed off on it. Sansom has said the money was solely for an emergency management and training center at the airport.

Though a disciplinary hearing is like a court trial, the threshold for proving misconduct is not as rigid. The committee will make a recommendation on any disciplinary action, which could include censure or removal from office. It could also make recommendations on how to improve the budget process.

"There's a lot of politics involved," Galvano said. "At the end of the day, it's 120 members who are making a decision in this case."

Rep. Ray Sansom's House disciplinary hearing on track to start Monday 02/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 18, 2010 9:05pm]
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