Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

Former Speaker of the House Indicted

Former Speaker of the Florida House Ray Sansom (R-Destin), along with Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg, was indicted by a Tallahassee Grand Jury on Friday.  Sansom and Richburg will face a charge of official misconduct.  Richburg will also face a perjury count.  The grand jury report is highly critical of the Legislature budgeting process, beginning with the fact that once the House and Senate pass their respective budget, it goes to conference, where the House Appropriations Chair (which was Ray Sansom at the time of the controversial funding) and their Senate collegue have almost unlimited discretion over what is funded in the state budget.  By the time negotiations are finished, the members of the Legislature often have less than 24 hours to read the compromise before they are forced to vote on it and conclude the Legislative session.  The Grand Jury felt that the system, as it currently stands, is designed to allow a few powerful members of the Legislature almost sole discretion of the expenditure of state funds.

Of course, any criticism of Tallahassee politicians is unlikely to go unchallenged.  Rep. David Rivera (R-Miami) blasted the citizens that served on the Grand Jury for daring to criticize the Legislature, stating that: “If those grand jurors served in the Legislature for two years they would have come to a much different conclusion…It was a runaway grand jury.”  Thankfully, not all of the legislators have such a low opinion of citizen input.

“I think we’re a little taken aback. Nobody expected it,” said Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City. Told of the report’s criticism of the secrecy of the appropriations process, the second-term lawmaker said: “I can understand where public opinion would find that type of concern.” He cited instances in which lawmakers are asked to vote on 50- or 60-page rewrites of complex bills, referred to as strike-all amendments. 

Let’s hope that, in the future, lawmakers moves reflect more of Rep. Patronis’ comments and less of Rep. Rivera’s.  Transparency and public input are vital to the political process.  Tallahassee should be taking steps to increase both, not shut them out as Rep. Rivera would apparently prefer.

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It’s official: Sansom out as Speaker – permanently

Tonight (Monday night) the House Republicans made it official – they voted in Larry Cretul as their new leader.  All that remains is a vote of the full House on March 3rd, the opening day of the Regular Session, and Cretul will officially be Speaker of the House for the remainder of Ray Sansom’s two-year term.  According to news reports, Sansom was there for the vote.

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House Republicans moving quickly to vote in permanent Speaker

It turns out that Ray Sansom’s interpretation of the House rules may not be the final interpretation after all.  Things have begun to move very swiftly this weekend. 

The Republicans were rumored to be scheduling a caucus for Monday night to begin proceedings to potentially oust Ray Sansom and elect a new Speaker for the remainder of Sansom’s 2 year term.  Then Representative Bill Galvano, Rules Chairman, issued a memo to interim Speaker Larry Cretul, saying that the House should go ahead and elect a new speaker and not allow Sansom to remain as “speaker-in-limbo”.  Now, Rep. Adam Hasner, Majority Leader, has called a caucus meeting for 9pm tomorrow night.

Interesting that the Republicans can now move so quickly to apparently oust Sansom after sitting in silence about him for months.

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Meet Florida’s New (Temporary) Speaker

Meet Larry Cretul.

The state House’s acting speaker is a low-key, little-known but well-liked conservative Republican real estate broker from north-central Florida.

Rep. Larry Cretul prefers to work behind the scenes and likes to ride motorcycles, friends and colleagues say.

Cretul, 61, of Ocala, will lead the chamber at least until a series of investigations into Speaker Ray Sansom’s connections to a state college are resolved.

Cretul is a native of Trenton, Mich., a Baptist deacon and Navy veteran. He and wife Lana have two sons and a grandson. Before being elected to the House in 2002, Cretul was a Marion County commissioner for eight years, serving twice as chairman and twice as vice chairman.

“He’s not a bombastic type,” said Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, who represents some of same areas as Cretul. “He’s a quiet professional.”

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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.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , , ,

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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