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Swarm of ethics allegations surrounds Sansom

By MARY ELLEN KLAS

Herald Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — For House Speaker Ray Sansom, plagued by two ethics complaints and a possible state attorney probe into allegations he misused his public office, this may be a week of reckoning.

Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs plans to impanel a grand jury Monday that will hear two citizen complaints alleging Sansom violated state ethics and corruption laws by using his office to benefit a Destin developer and to win a lucrative community college job. Meggs expects the panel to decide Monday if it wants to investigate, he told the Herald/Times.

Meanwhile, the Florida Commission on Ethics is considering an official misconduct complaint against the speaker. The Clearwater man who filed the complaint, Dave Plyer, said he was told Friday that the complaint was found “legally sufficient’’ and now is under review. The commission, which met Friday, must then decide whether there is probable cause to continue hearing the complaint.

A third investigation, by Sansom’s own House Rules Committee, is continuing to examine allegations that the speaker “damaged the integrity of the House.”

And Attorney General Bill McCollum has said he is looking into a potential violation of the state’s open government laws relating to a meeting Sansom held with college officials.

State Rep. Bill Galvano of Bradenton said Saturday night that as rules chairman of the House he is holding an ethics complaint aimed at Sansom by Susan Smith on Jan. 13.

“The complaint comes to the House and then to the rules chairman, to see what should be done with it. I’m in the process of making that decision,” Galvano said.

Beyond that, Galvano said rules of the House restrict him from commenting further about investigations of Sansom’s actions.

Sansom has hired Tallahassee criminal defense attorney Peter Antonacci, a former statewide prosecutor, who confirmed he has been in contact with Meggs as well as Thomas Kirwin, acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District.

Critics compare Sansom’s troubles to embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But Sansom and his defenders say the investigations will prove his innocence.

“Everything we did was more than above board,” Sansom told the Herald/Times Thursday after a month of refusing to answer questions on the issue. He argues that he was just serving his constituents when he steered $35 million in school construction money to Northwest Florida State College, in excess of what state education officials had sought, then took the $110,000 part-time job at the college.

College officials and Sansom acknowledge they worked together to secure $6 million for the college to build an airport hangar to be used by the school on private airport property controlled by Destin developer Jay Odom, a Sansom friend and major political donor. They say allegations that Odom intended to use the building for his benefit are false.

But the legal issues behind the complaints are not so black and white.

Meggs said he refers all citizen complaints to the grand jury and lets them decide.

“If they are interested, we’ll assign an investigator to start assembling witnesses and bringing people in,” he said.

He said witnesses would be asked: “What were you gonna do with the airport hangar, and things like that.”

Meggs was asked to take the case to the grand jury by Plyer, a Democrat from Clearwater, and Ray Bellamy, a Republican from Tallahassee. Bellamy, a retired Florida State University professor and surgeon, has called for Sansom’s resignation and bought a full-page ad in the Tallahassee Democrat that makes a reference to the Blagojevich controversy, asking: “What is the difference between selling a U.S. Senate seat for ($500,000) and the actions of Sansom?”

Sansom is confident investigators will find nothing. If charges are pursued, he predicts he will be exonerated.

“I’m very proud of what we did,” he said Friday. “I have nothing in the world to hide...I was just a legislator trying to represent my district, to get money.”

For Sansom to be proven guilty of official misconduct, state laws require proof of a quid pro quo. That means he either received or was promised something of value in return for his public actions and there was an agreement reached ahead of time.

Retired State Attorney Harry Shorstein of Jacksonville believes that “Florida law has made it more difficult to bring public corruption charges against public officials.”

Public corruption cases brought under federal law are often easier to prove than those brought under narrower Florida laws, he said.

“It used to be you would bribe elected officials with five $100 bills in an envelope under the table in return for zoning or something,” said Shorstein, who retired in December after 18 years as state attorney in Jacksonville. “That has been replaced with political actions... in return for an appointment or your vote, I will help you and you will help me.”

Shorstein commended Meggs for bringing the issue to the grand jury “because there is a cloud over the process based on what the media has reported.”

He said the grand jury has several options: do nothing, find probable cause of criminal wrongdoing and issue an indictment, or write a report called a presentment “to explain to the public exactly what’s occurred, make recommendations to the Legislature, city and county and make sure things like this don’t occur in the future.”

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