No one said it would be easy to hold former House Speaker Ray Sansom and his pals accountable for misusing public money to pursue their personal agendas. Yet narrow court rulings and Sansom's stonewalling have made it even more difficult than anticipated. State Attorney Willie Meggs and state lawmakers have been creative in coping with the unexpected, and they must remain dogged in their pursuit of an appropriate outcome for taxpayers.
Meggs filed grand theft charges earlier this month against Sansom, former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg and developer Jay Odom for conspiring to earmark $6 million in public money for a college building that really was a thinly disguised Destin Airport hangar for Odom's planes. The prosecutor's hand was forced after a circuit judge dismissed a key part of the official misconduct charge against Sansom and an appellate court punted on procedural grounds.
While official misconduct sounds like the most appropriate charge, grand theft might be easier to prosecute and is certainly more direct. Grand theft also carries stiffer penalties. That could inspire Sansom and his friends to seek a plea bargain to settle the charges, and in past cases involving state lawmakers Meggs has proven to be a shrewd negotiator. The state attorney has expressed appropriate outrage about this misuse of public money, and he should not let Sansom off with a slap on the wrist.
Meanwhile, a House panel has been forced to delay its disciplinary hearings because Sansom needs a new lawyer and refuses to testify. A special prosecutor persuaded a judge to release to her Sansom's grand jury testimony, an unusual but appropriate move given the lawmaker's lack of cooperation. Sansom, who cannot seek re-election because of term limits, appears to be stalling. He may figure he will escape the embarrassment of being reprimanded or expelled from the Legislature by his colleagues if the five-member committee cannot meet before the session starts in March. The committee should not let Sansom dictate its schedule, and it should hold its hearings as soon as possible.
Despite the obstacles, both the prosecutor and the House have an obligation to press ahead to bring this scandal to an appropriate conclusion. The Destin Republican must be held accountable for his misuse of public money, and there are broader messages that must be sent as well. Legislators must understand there are consequences to misusing their public office for private gain. And Floridians must have confidence that the judicial and legislative branches of government will hold powerful politicians responsible when they violate the public trust.