House Investigators Meet, Delay Work Until October
A special House committee charged with investigating former Speaker Ray Sansom’s relationship with a Panhandle college when he was House budget chairman has essentially postponed its work until October, waiting for the Destin Republican to be tried in criminal court.
The committee, chaired by Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, met Tuesday morning for an organizational meeting to set out a timeline for the probe and decide how to move ahead, but a pending criminal trial complicates the committee's work because many witnesses would likely not testify for fear of interfering with the criminal proceeding.
The House investigation stems from a complaint filed by Odessa resident Susan Smith, who said in a complaint that her "respect for the Florida House had been greatly diminished by Speaker Sansom's actions.” Just as he became speaker, Sansom took a job at Northwest Florida State College, an institution he had steered millions of dollars to in a budget year when most schools saw few dollars.
An investigation by the St. Petersburg Times pointed to further possible conflicts and alleged that Sansom had also skirted open meetings laws in his dealings with the college. Lawmakers on the committee are charged with investigating the complaint and determining whether Sansom should be reprimanded for his conduct. This could even mean expulsion from the Legislature.
The panel wades into the matter caught between respect for Sansom and respect for the process.
“There's two sides to every story,” said Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, who is on the committee. “We have seen some allegations, now I'd like to see the facts presented on both sides and hear both sides of the story before we make final decisions.”
Sansom did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.
Some of the dollars appropriated in the budget overseen by Sansom to Northwest Florida State College went to fund a Leadership Institute, which he would have partly overseen in his new job, as well as an airport hangar that appeared to benefit Republican party and Sansom contributor Jay Odom, an Okaloosa County developer. The case against Sansom led to an indictment by a grand jury this past spring. He also stepped down from the speakership and his job at the college.
However, he has maintained his innocence throughout the process and he has pledged to work with the House committee once the criminal trial has concluded, where he and his lawyers have said he will be vindicated.
Smith, who also did not attend Tuesday's meeting, told the News Service she would like to see Sansom resign from his seat.
“I just think it's appalling and I have many friends who are Republican and they are just as appalled,” she said.
Galvano and other committee members acknowledged that it would be difficult to interview witnesses who were also likely to be testifying at the criminal trial, which is scheduled for Sept. 29. So, the committee will not meet again until the first week of October, when lawmakers are in Tallahassee for a week of committee meetings. At that time, the panel will likely forward a name to the Speaker's office to serve as independent counsel.
Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs, said he hoped that the committee would move a little bit faster, and noted that many times criminal proceedings are delayed, which could further slow the House investigation.
“So what happens on Sept. 29 if the state or the defense takes a continuance and then it's delayed again?” Porth asked. “I just don't want this complainant to not see some sort of resolution to the complaint she filed back in January.”
Smith said she understood why the House committee work has been delayed given that the political process could affect the criminal process, but she is standing firmly behind her complaint. Smith filed the complaint on Jan. 6 and in late June, Speaker Larry Cretul appointed a select committee to investigate. Sansom by then had been indicted by a grand jury.
Galvano acknowledged that the criminal trial could be delayed, which could further complicate or delay the House investigation, but took a wait-and-see approach to the situation.
“At some point we'll have to make a decision whether we want to proceed,” Galvano said.
Other committee members said it was clear that nobody wanted to be in the position of trying their colleague, but said they had a job to do.