TALLAHASSEE – A lawyer for former House Speaker Ray Sansom said he wouldn’t have gotten a fair shake from a select House committee that was to begin hearings Monday on an ethics complaint against the Destin Republican about 14 hours after he resigned.
The resignation made the complaint moot, so the panel met briefly to close the case without a hearing.
Sansom was accused of violating the public trust and the House’s integrity by allegedly funneling millions to Northwest Florida State College in Niceville before taking a $110,000 job at the school on the day he became speaker in November 2008.
He resigned from the job and stepped down as speaker a year ago but remained a House member until Sunday night, when he submitted his resignation to Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, who immediately accepted it.
Sansom had tried repeatedly to get the committee to delay action until a related criminal case is resolved, but the panel refused. As a result, Sansom planned to exercise his Fifth Amendment right not to testify against himself. The committee last week also agreed to withdraw subpoenas for Sansom’s two co-defendants for the same reason.
“Quite frankly, the criminal case had to trump these proceedings,” said Gloria Fletcher, Sansom’s lawyer. “He couldn’t defend himself in this process. There was no way for him to compel the attendance of witnesses. … His due process rights were significantly violated.”
Committee Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, insisted the process was fair.
“I think that because we are a political body and because our rules require us to maintain the integrity of our own House that this is something that we needed to do and move forward with,” Galvano said. “And that’s what we did.”
The criminal case has been moving slowly with no trial date set. It’s unlikely to be resolved before the 2010 legislative session ends on April 30. Any action the House might have taken later would have had little consequence because Sansom would have been term-limited out of office in November, anyway.
Gov. Charlie Crist later Monday set a special primary election for March 23 and a general election for April 13 to fill the rest of Sansom’s term. The new District 4 representative would take office with only about two weeks left in the legislative session.
Sansom’s resignation also avoided potentially embarrassingtestimony by several current and former GOP lawmakers. The witness list included former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who is running for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination against Crist, and state Sen. Mike Haridopolos, an Indialantic Republican in line to become Senate president in November.
Galvano, though, had ruled Sansom could not seek testimony comparing his actions with those of other lawmakers.
In his letter of resignation, Sansom wrote it was not an admission of guilt and maintained his innocence. He added that he was quitting on the advice of his lawyers and because it was in his and his family’s best interests.
“I can assure all concerned that the time will come where I will be afforded an opportunity to answer all questions and I anxiously await an opportunity to do so,” he wrote.
Sansom was not present Monday.
Fletcher also alleged the committee ignored House rules because the citizen who filed the complaint, Susan Smith of Odessa, in her view lacked personal knowledge of the alleged violation and complained that Smith got help filing the complaint from a Democratic Party official.
Galvano said the committeeordered hearings based on an independent investigator’s findings of probable cause in response to the complaint, not the complaint itself.