Sansom panel OKs witness list

TALLAHASSEE — It has the potential of a bombshell: Some of the biggest names in Florida politics, including U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio, raising their hands and swearing to tell the truth about what they knew of state Rep. Ray Sansom’s dealings with a Panhandle college.

But even as a House investigative panel voted Wednesday to issue scores of subpoenas, private talks were being held on a settlement in which Sansom could accept some level of responsibility in damaging public trust in the House.

The move would avoid a highly embarrassing trial not just for Sansom, R-Destin, but scores of other officials who would be exposed to intense media coverage. Nothing is certain, however, and previous attempts at a deal fell through.

Local Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, chairman of the five-member Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, confirmed he had a meeting Monday about a “potential resolution” with Sansom’s attorney, Gloria Fletcher.

He said it was premature to suggest anything might be reached before the start of Sansom’s hearing Feb. 22.

“We’re well prepared to have a hearing on the matter,” he added.

For a settlement to work, it would likely have to be less harsh than the toughest penalty Sansom could face — removal from office — but strong enough to satisfy those who think he acted improperly and should be punished.

Sansom, 47, is accused of damaging public confidence in the House by using his power to funnel millions to Northwest Florida State College and then taking a $110,000 part-time job there.

The committee Wednesday approved Sansom’s list of 35 potential witnesses. Six legislators are on the list including Sen. Mike Haridopolos, the Melbourne Republican slated to become Senate president for the 2011-12 sessions, and Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island. Both have jobs in the state college/university system, as do more than a dozen other lawmakers, so Sansom could be trying to assert that his situation is not unlike others.

Two former House members also could be called to testify: Joe Pickens, now president of St. Johns Community College in Palatka, and David Mealor, an associate vice president at University of Central Florida.

But the bold face name is Rubio, the Miami Republican who has garnered national attention in his run against Gov. Charlie Crist in the U.S. Senate primary. Rubio indicated Wednesday he would cooperate if asked to testify.

Sansom was then-House Speaker Rubio’s handpicked budget chairman during 2007-08.

In that time, Sansom steered $35 million in extra or accelerated money to Northwest Florida State College. He took the job there on the same day he was sworn in as speaker in November 2008, replacing Rubio.

“If he is called and if he has any information that is useful, he’ll be happy to provide it,” Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Burgos said.

Parliamentarian rules prohibit subpoenaing senators. But they could be asked to voluntarily testify. Jones said he did not plan to, citing travel and other issues.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he would testify if asked. In 2007, Gaetz was among the lawmakers who got a funding request for a $6 million emergency operations center at Destin Airport. He said the request by the city of Destin made no mention that developer and Sansom friend Jay Odom had proposed the idea and would use the building for his corporate jet business unless there was a storm. That request was never funded.