POLITICS

Former speaker of the House may get state to pay his legal bills

 

Herald/Times columnist

Ray Sansom’s career as speaker of the House was one of the shortest in Florida history.

It now appears that it could be one of the most expensive, too.

Sansom, a Republican from Destin, was forced to resign from the Legislature in 2009 after a state prosecutor charged him with conspiracy and grand theft in his dealings as House budget chairman in which he secured millions of tax dollars for a local college that later offered him a job.

His speakership was quickly sidetracked by grand jury proceedings that focused on a budget bounty of $36 million for Northwest Florida State College, which handed Sansom a $110,000 job on the same day he became speaker (he soon resigned).

He later stepped aside as speaker under pressure from House leaders, who feared his conduct would inflict permanent damage on the Legislature as an institution.

Throughout the ordeal, Sansom said little other than to predict he would be cleared of wrongdoing — and he was.

In March 2011, state prosecutor Willie Meggs dropped the charges against Sansom and his codefendant, developer Jay Odom, after the trial judge ruled that Meggs had failed to show evidence of a conspiracy to steer money to a college building that could also be used as a hangar for a jet business owned by Odom, a major supporter of Sansom’s.

Meggs dropped the charges after citing “inconsistencies” in Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’ rulings before and after the trial began.

Sansom went back to Destin, his political career over and his finances in ruins. He had run up nearly $1 million in legal fees and costs that remain unpaid.

But Sansom may have the last word. Under a common law principle, a public official who’s prosecuted but not convicted can be reimbursed for legal costs as long as the conduct in question is connected to his official duties.

The 1982 case that established the principle is Lomelo vs. City of Sunrise, in which the flamboyant mayor of the Broward County city, John Lomelo, was accused of corruption by threat for interfering with a police officer’s arrest of a friend’s son. A judge dismissed the charge, Lomelo sued for legal fees and won the case in the 4th District Court of Appeal.

Relying on the Lomelo case, Sansom has sent a bill to the state for $817,518.73, which includes a $50,000 retainer he paid his lawyers, who mainly charged $400 an hour.

Sansom’s last financial disclosure statement, filed after he left office, listed his net worth at $655,000.

He filed a lawsuit two weeks ago and named the state as a defendant, “for the public duty to pay the reasonable and necessary legal fees and costs.”

Robert Harper of Broad and Cassel in Tallahassee, who co filed Sansom’s legal fee-lawsuit, did not name Sansom’s former employer, the Legislature, as a defendant, because under the law the Legislature is not considered an agency for employment purposes.

Harper said Meggs should pay Sansom’s legal tab “as the person responsible for spending public funds on this prosecution to begin with, only to later decide to flat-out dismiss the case.”

Meggs, a Democrat facing re-election this fall, did not respond to a request for comment.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or 850-224-7263.

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