House speaker faces 2 inquiries


Published: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 at 10:24 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - In separate and unprecedented moves, a state attorney and fellow lawmakers said Monday that they will investigate one of Florida's most powerful elected officials, House Speaker Ray Sansom, on allegations he improperly benefited from his relationship with a Florida college.

The announcement of the inquiries carried no finding of wrongdoing, but seemed certain to draw out a controversy that has already consumed the Capitol since late last year.

The state attorney's investigation has the potential to lead to criminal charges. The separate investigation in the Legislature - believed to be the first time a Florida House speaker has ever been the subject of such an inquiry - could lead to Sansom's removal from office.

Sansom continued to deny any wrongdoing and predicted he would be vindicated by the investigations.

The news cast a cloud over a Legislature struggling to deal with a fiscal crisis that will likely lead to billions of dollars in cuts of programs and services when lawmakers convene in March.

The decision by House members to investigate Sansom was particularly charged because Republicans hold a more than 2-1 advantage in the House and members are beholden to the speaker for key positions such as committee chairmanships.

Sansom accepted a $110,000 job as vice president at Northwest Florida State College in November, the same day he assumed the role as House speaker. The college job was never advertised, and Sansom was the only candidate considered. No minutes were recorded at the meeting at which he was hired.

In the previous year as the House's budget chief, Sansom secured $25.5 million for construction at the school after it had requested just $1 million.

Sansom has admitted to using House employees and equipment in applying for the college job. He also has been accused of seeking to avoid public meetings involving the college and using money earmarked for school construction to fund an aircraft hanger requested by a longtime friend and donor.

Sansom, R-Destin, released a statement Monday following the announcement by state attorney Willie Meggs that a Leon County grand jury had asked him to investigate the matter.

"I have acted honestly in all matters, including in my work as a state legislator," Sansom said. "The complaints are based on news articles, not personal knowledge of the facts. Once the facts are fully aired, I expect the outcome of this inquiry will be positive. I will cooperate fully and look forward to a speedy conclusion."

Sansom resigned from the college job earlier this month, saying it had become an unfair distraction for other lawmakers.

Meggs gave no timeline for his investigation. In the early 1990s, Meggs filed charges against dozens of lawmakers for accepting trips and other gifts from lobbyists. Most paid a modest fine.

One of Sansom's attorneys, Pete Antonacci, of Tallahassee, said Meggs' inquiry would prove Sansom's innocence.

"Ray Sansom wants to be heard," said Antonacci, a former member of the state ethics commission. "My client is going to give his evidence and give it freely and voluntarily and without qualification. From what I know of the evidence, an indictment would not be forthcoming."

Meggs could take months gathering information before reporting back to the grand jury, which could then recommend that criminal charges be filed, drop the matter or offer a non-binding report.

The separate investigation by the House of its own leader may be a first in Florida history.

Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said Monday that there was sufficient cause to investigate a complaint filed with the House earlier this month. The complaint, filed by Susan T. Smith, D-Pasco County, claimed Sansom violated House rules stating that, "A member shall respect and comply with the law and shall perform at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and independence of the House and of the Legislature."

Galvano dismissed the portions of Smith's complaint that alleged Sansom had used his public position for personal gain. Galvano said the state ethics commission is considering that issue and ruled that Smith did not have the "personal knowledge" to back up those accusations.

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