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A Times Editorial

Tackling corruption

Ayear ago, Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom was stubbornly defending his new high-paid position at Northwest Florida State College, his reward for quietly steering millions in public money to the school. Now, his college job and the speakership are long gone, and the disgraced Destin Republican remains under state indictment and federal investigation. Although Tallahassee politicians spent much of this year in denial, the Sansom scandal has sparked a new commitment for 2010 to root out corruption and promote reforms.

House Republicans who defended Sansom a year ago are smartly moving toward January hearings to determine whether he violated legislative rules of conduct and should remain in office. Respected former statewide prosecutor Melanie Hines is assembling a case as the House's independent counsel. Former House Speaker Marco Rubio, former Senate President Ken Pruitt and top House staffers are among the potential witnesses who could shed more light on Sansom's efforts to grossly manipulate the budgeting process to benefit the college and a powerful friend.

The Legislature also will consider a promising package of anticorruption reforms proposed by Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. For example, state fraud laws would be broadened to mirror federal statutes to include an "honest services" provision. A circuit judge dismissed official misconduct charges against Sansom, former college president Bob Richburg and developer Jay Odom in October by taking a narrow view of a tightly worded state statute. Attorney General Bill McCollum wisely appealed (and Sansom is still charged with lying to a grand jury), but a broader state statute that tracks federal law would be useful. Sansom, Richburg and Odom conspired to use public education money to build an airport hangar to benefit Odom, and state law ought to be able to clearly address such a blatant violation of the public trust.

Gelber and other reform-minded lawmakers also will make another run at banning legislators from controlling slush funds, the so-called 527 accounts that accept unlimited contributions. They are among the biggest cancers in Florida politics and breed corruption. Odom contributed a total of more than $1 million to the state Republican Party, a 527 slush fund controlled by Sansom and Sansom's own campaign account. A prominent South Florida fundraiser under indictment in an unrelated case also used 527 accounts to raise mountains of cash to benefit legislators. It is legal money laundering, and it needs to stop.

Even indirectly, the impact of the Sansom scandal has been beneficial. Gov. Charlie Crist successfully petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to empanel a statewide grand jury to investigate government corruption after Sansom's indictment was followed by other unrelated corruption charges against South Florida politicians. The toothless state Ethics Commission wants lawmakers to give it the authority to initiate its own investigations instead of waiting for citizens to file complaints. Some legislators are pushing to make the state budgeting process more transparent. And one lawmaker succinctly summed up why he declared a conflict of interest and abstained from voting on a rail project during this month's special legislative session.

"Ray Sansom: Need I say more?" asked Rep. Baxter Troutman, R-Winter Haven.

The criminal charges and legislative sanctions against Sansom should be fully pursued in 2010 and he should be held responsible for his misconduct. But there is a broader opportunity here. It is time to stop rationalizing business as usual in Tallahassee. The governor, the Legislature and the courts need to take a stand, strengthen corruption and campaign fundraising laws, and hold the state's elected leaders accountable. As their New Year's resolution, Floridians should demand it.

Tackling corruption 12/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 29, 2009 10:30pm]
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