Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

Sansom turns speaker duties over to Cretul

The good news:   Ray Sansom, beseiged by stinging criticism (not from Florida’s Republican legislators, though) and criminal and ethics investigations stepped down temporarily from his post as Speaker of the House for the Florida Legislature today – at least until the investigations are concluded.  The Speaker Pro Tem, Larry Cretul, will be assuming Sansom’s duties as Speaker of the House.

The bad news:  Sansom can resume his position as Speaker of the House at any time.

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Sansom’s jet hangar

Well, a few rocks have been turned over on Sansom’s jet hangar and look what’s been found. 

Although Destin Jet is about to open and Jay Odom has known for more than a year that a college building will go up instead of his maintenance facility, he has yet to tell county officials how he’ll meet their FAA-recommended mandate to offer repair service. [St. Pete Times]

Hmmm….maybe Odom and Sansom did intend for him to use that facility for his jets after all.

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Sansom: Ethics problems and a Prayer Breakfast?

A grand jury decided Monday to look into allegations that House Speaker Ray Sansom abused his position by taking a six-figure job at his hometown college.

“From this point on, we’ll be calling witnesses,” State Attorney Willie Meggs said at the Leon County Courthouse. “I don’t know what we’re going to find until we look. We will get the people who have this information and present it to the grand jury.” [St. Pete Times]

Meanwhile, back in the Legislature:

Rep. Bill Galvano has called for a special investigator to look into a complaint that Speaker Ray Sansom violated House ethics rules calling for a legislator to uphold the respect and responsibility of office.

“Given his role as speaker, it’s more prudent to have a special investigator,” Galvano told the Times/Herald. His other option was to call for a panel of House members. “It’s a difficult situation. I found it very difficult myself. With a third party, you’re going to get more objectivity.”

Galvano said he found a second part of the complaint — that Sansom used his position for personal gain after steering millions to Northwest Florida State College — insufficient because the citizen based that solely on newspaper reports, not personal knowledge. [St. Pete Times]

Of course, Sansom continues to declare he has done no wrong. 

And here’s the best joke of all – Sansom is scheduled to be a keynote speaker at an upcoming prayer breakfast in Pensacola. The purpose of the breakfast is to encourage moral and spiritual values in government. HA!  They may wish to reconsider who their keynote speaker is at this point.

In case you haven’t realized it, you’re no longer in Kansas, Mr. Clean.  So click your heels together and repeat after me:  “There’s no place like home.  There’s no place like home.  There’s no place like home.”  If the citizens of Florida are very, very lucky, when we all wake up that’s where you’ll be – at home, instead of being the Speaker of the House and a member of the Florida Legislature.

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Sansom grand jury convenes today

A grand jury today will consider Ray Bellamy’s ethics complaint against Ray Sansom.  Bellamy filed his with the North Florida state attorney, Willie Meggs, after a series of newspaper reports that the 46-year-old politician might have used his power to secure a six-figure job and approve state funding for a political benefactor’s project.

“Somebody has got to stop this,” Bellamy said, “or it’s going to become the standard for future House speakers and legislators.”

Since he was sworn in as House speaker on Nov. 18, Sansom has been the target of two ethics complaints – in addition to the grand jury inquiry – that question whether he was offered a $110,000-per-year job at Northwest Florida State College as payback for securing the school – about the size of Indian River State College – tens of millions of dollars in construction projects.

Also at question is Sansom’s role in one project in particular: $6 million from the state to build Northwest Florida State an emergency training facility 16 miles from its Niceville campus on land leased by Destin Jet.

The company’s owner, Jay Odom, who has contributed more than $100,000 to Sansom’s political committees, had hoped the training facility would double as a jet hangar. News of the hangar was first reported by the St. Petersburg Times.

Sansom also is facing questions from Attorney General Bill McCollum, a fellow Republican whose office confirmed last week it is looking into whether Sansom and Northwest Florida State President James “Bob” Richburg tried to skirt state open-meeting laws to strategize about legislation that would transform the school from a community college to a state college. [Palm Beach Post]

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Honest services fraud prosecutions rising

A New Jersey lawmaker was convicted of the crime in November after he used his power and influence to obtain a $35,000-a-year job at a state School of Osteopathic Medicine after he helped steer $10-million in state grants to the school. A former dean at the medical school was also convicted of rigging the hiring process to create a job for the legislator. 

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

There were some differences between the New Jersey case and that of Ray Sansom according to a St. Pete Times article.  However, I bring up the example to point out that, at the federal level at least, honest services fraud prosecutions are on the rise. 

What is honest services fraud? 

The [federal] law presumes a public official owes the public a duty of honest services. When the official fails and does so using the mail or telephones — or perhaps e-mail or BlackBerry — while concealing a financial interest, it becomes a crime. 

Efforts to put an honest services fraud clause in to state law have so far been unsuccessful, but Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, says he is making another attempt to get legislative approval of the measure this year. Gelber, a former federal prosecutor, said it is a “useful tool that should be part of the arsenal that state prosecutors have.” 

A good look inside some of these cases might make Florida lawmakers and lobbyists thankful for the 2005 law that prohibits lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators. Assuming, of course, that everyone has obeyed the law.  [St. Pete Times]

Evidently, numerous Tallahassee criminal defense attorneys have begun boning up on the law pertaining to honest services fraud.

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Ray “I’m clean” Sansom now hires criminal attorney

Despite his protestations about being clean, Ray Sansom has hired one of the best known criminal defense lawyers in Tallahassee and elsewhere – Peter Antonacci.  Antonacci will be defending Mr. Clean in possible state and federal investigations into the dealings of the Sansom, Bob Richburg and the trustees of NW Florida State College. 

Antonacci once worked for Meggs [the local State Attorney conducting the state investigation into Sansom], handling public corruption prosecutions. In recent years, he has become the go-to guy for Republicans in trouble.

In 2002, then-Gov. Jeb Bush called on Antonacci to represent his daughter, Noelle, on charges that she had forged a prescription for Xanax.

Antonacci is currently a senior lawyer in the Tallahassee office of Gray-Robinson, one of Florida’s best-known law firms. Antonacci, like Coates, was a lobbyist before the Florida Legislature in 2008. [St. Pete Times]

If you recall, Sansom has already hired Richard Coates (mentioned in the quote above) to represent him on the ethics complaint that has been lodged against him.  Btw, the Ethics Commission found the ethics complaint against Sansom legally sufficient on Friday.  Now a preliminary investigation into the ethics charges will occur.

Sansom has repeatedly issued blanket denials of any wrongdoing, but the St. Pete Times has called him out again in an editorial today saying the only thing convincing about Sansom’s denials is the underscoring of the need for criminal investigations into the matter. 

So if Sansom is Mr. Clean, I can’t help but wonder this:  Why does he need to hire two big gun attorneys to represent him?

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Legislature could’ve closed easy loopholes – and still can

Timely article below from the Tampa Tribune discussing how the Legislature could have easily fixed some tax loopholes during the Special Session.  They still can fix them during the upcoming regular session.  The question is:  do they have the wherewithal to do it?

TAMPA – Although the Florida Legislature slashed budgets for schools, children’s health care and living assistance for the elderly in its recent special session, it ignored a couple of easy fixes – loopholes in corporate tax law – that could have produced revenue to avoid some of the worst cuts.

In its regular session in March, facing an even bigger deficit in the coming year’s budget, the Legislature almost certainly will have to look at those and other ways to increase state tax revenue.

In the special session that ended Jan. 14, Democrats reacted angrily against the refusal of Republican legislative leaders to consider two measures in particular:

•Closing a loophole that lets corporations sell high-value properties without paying the documentary stamp tax that’s supposed to apply to all Florida real estate.

•Enacting laws that prevent corporations from “exporting” profit to other states, therefore avoiding Florida corporate income tax.

Those fixes could have produced an estimated $500 million in revenue, roughly what the Legislature cut from public schools, Democrats said.

“Even a few dollars would have been helpful in preventing some of the things we did that hurt people,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, who proposed legislation on the “doc stamp” tax. “It’s not a new tax, just closes a loophole people have been taking advantage of.”

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist says he thinks the Legislature cut more than they should have, and he may veto some cuts.

Republican legislative leaders gave several reasons why they wouldn’t consider any measures to increase revenue in the special session, called to fill a gap in the current year’s budget.

“The bottom line is our constituents have voiced very loudly, we cannot afford to pay more taxes right now,” said state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa. “Seven percent of our constituency is on unemployment. The last thing we want is government digging deeper in our pocket

Victor Crist added that with even bigger budget cuts looming, the state wanted to hold back any revenue cards until the regular session in March.

“That’s going to be a very wrenching experience,” he said.

Concerning the doc stamp tax, he said, “We didn’t want to do anything to hinder an industry that has been brought to its knees.”

Asked why he opposed considering revenue increases in the special session, House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, told the Tribune: “We agreed that takes time for the committee process and to let citizens have input on what we’re doing. That really is a regular session issue.”

Democrats countered that closing the loopholes is a simple matter of tax fairness.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Silent Running

The term “silent running” is sometimes used to describe the standard operating procedure used by staff on a submarine when they wish to become as undetectable as possible. It involves the observation of “noise discipline,” minimizing noises which could alert other ship traffic to the presence of the submarine.   In this particular case though, we are referring to the Speaker of the House, Ray Sansom, not a submarine and its staff. 

According to the St. Pete Times:

For 2 months, Ray Sansom has been the silent Speaker.  He attends few events, holds no news conferences, gives few interviews and advances no vision of Florida’s future. 

That’s pretty unique for a legislator in one of the two supreme leadership positions in the Florida Legislature.  But it sounds like Sansom’s silence may be wearing thin on his fellow legislators, although they have not been voices in the wilderness, either.

Sansom’s low profile has cost him points with some members of his Republican caucus, who use words like “baffled” and “disappointed” to describe their feelings about Sansom’s actions.

They won’t speak for attribution because a whispered word from the speaker can mean life or death over a member’s legislation, pet project or coveted parking space.

Sansom’s prolonged silence comes at a difficult time for Republicans. After more than a decade in power in the Capitol, they face the most challenging economic time in the state’s modern history.

Some of his colleagues are eager for the inquiries to end in his favor before the regular session begins March 3, when the pressure on Sansom to emerge from hiding will intensify.

“We’re just waiting to see how it all plays out,” said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater. “This can’t linger for two years. It simply cannot.”

As long as none of Sansom’s fellow legislators are willing to speak out publicly, I could definitely see this albatross  lingering around Sansom’s neck for the two years of his leadership tenure.   It’s a sad day when your legislators hold their parking spot or pet project in higher esteem than their moral values.

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The case of Sansom’s curious minutes

Remember those mysterious “minutes” that recently appeared in the Sansom/Richburg dealings that we posted about here?  Well it appears that the Attorney General’s Office is very curious about the timing of their appearance.  In fact, Bill McCollum is so interested in them that according to the St. Pete Times he opened an inquiry today into their sudden appearance to see if public records requirements were met or not.

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Florida’s Version of the Rose Law Firm Billing Records

Florida’s House Speaker Ray Sansom (R-Destin) finds himself recreating the infamous scenario of the missing Rose Law Firm billing records. The Speaker has been criticized for a meeting with the Trustees of Northwest Florida State College that appears to have been designed to circumvent the Sunshine Law as no minutes were apparently taken. Now, 10 months after the meeting, the meeting minutes have suddenly appeared. Of course, they appeared after a newspaper editorial called on Attorney General Bill McCollum to investigate whether the meeting (and its lack of minutes) violated the state’s sunshine laws. Interestingly enough, Sansom’s recollection of the meeting and the minutes from the meeting appear to be at odds. Sansom referred to the meeting as “one of the most productive meetings” he had ever been involved with. The minutes simply say that “no action was taken.” The story, from the St. Pete Times, can be found here.

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