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Sansom accuses panelist of bias

State Rep. Ray Sansom charged Monday that a member of the House panel investigating his ties to a Panhandle college is biased, has a conflict of interest and should be removed from the panel.

Sansom suggested that Rep. Joe Gibbons is biased by implying Sansom is trying to force delays and avoid the hearing altogether, and that he has a conflict because he works for the same law firm as an attorney for the college.

Several employees at Northwest Florida State College could be called as witnesses in the hearing, now scheduled to begin Feb. 22. The college lawyer, Bruce Culpepper, is a shareholder in Akerman Senterfitt law firm, where Gibbons is a consultant.

So Sansom, R-Destin, wants Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, taken off the five-member Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, asserting that otherwise he would be subject to "unfair bias and prejudice."

After the committee voted to delay the trial a month — at Sansom's request — Gibbons told a Times/Herald reporter on Jan. 14 that he was concerned Sansom might be trying to run out the clock and delay any decisions by the House panel until after the session ends in May. Sansom is in his eighth and final year as a House member due to term limits. Sansom had previously asked that the House hearing be delayed until a related criminal case is resolved; that case remains in court.

His motion Monday states, "Further, it appears that Representative Joseph A. Gibbons has already determined that a sanction is appropriate in this matter as he is further quoted in the same article as stating, 'If we can be stalled through the session, then nothing will happen. … And doing nothing, I think, will hurt the image of the House of Representatives.' "

The motion also quotes Gibbons as saying Sansom is "not a smart man" if he chooses not to appear before the panel and asserts that Gibbons has "no regard" for Sansom's constitutional rights. Gibbons did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Rep. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who chairs the panel, said he would review Sansom's request, but that the committee only makes a recommendation that is voted on by the entire House.

"Ultimately, every member of the body will have the ability to be part of the decision, one way or another," Galvano said.

It is a body Sansom would have presided over last year and this year. But he was engulfed in scandal just after taking the helm as House speaker.

Sansom, 47, funneled about $35 million in extra or accelerated taxpayer money to the small college during the two years he controlled the House budget. The money included $6 million for an airport building that Jay Odom, a friend of Sansom's and major GOP donor, had at one point wanted to use for his corporate jet business.

Sansom took a $110,000 part-time job at the college on the same day in November 2008 that he was sworn in as House speaker. Amid widening scandal, he reluctantly quit the job and was ousted by fellow Republicans as speaker.

The House Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct was formed to hear a complaint filed by a Tampa-area woman that Sansom's dealings damaged public faith in the House. The panel includes three Republicans and two Democrats.

This is not the first time the issue of a potential conflict has been raised. Another panel member, Republican Rich Glorioso of Plant City, received a $500 campaign donation from Odom (hand-delivered by Sansom, who was campaigning among Republicans to be picked as House speaker). Glorioso said he did not think he had a conflict and was allowed to remain on the committee.

Sansom did not raise that issue in his motion Monday.

The longer the case drags on, the more it is costing taxpayers. The tab so far: about $234,000.

An initial investigation on the complaint resulted in fees of $101,690 for outside attorney Steve Kahn, who found probable cause Sansom violated House rules in various ways, including the airport deal.

The House then hired a special prosecutor, Melanie Hines, to handle the case, which could result in Sansom's censure or removal from office. Hines has been working since October, and so far her bill has exceeded $132,000.

Sansom accuses panelist of bias 02/15/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 12:00am]
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