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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Shamed Speaker Redeemed; Other Court Battles Focus on Sunshine

February 26, 2015 - 6:00pm

The tickets to Associated Industries of Florida's annual legislative session-eve party are pinned to the bulletin board. Suits and sweaters are back from the dry cleaners. And Tallahassee's fickle pre-spring weather promises to turn balmy just in time to bring March in like a lamb.

By Tuesday, when the 60-day legislative session officially begins, lobbyists and lawmakers will have returned from far-flung places and traded in their fishing rods for Gucci loafers.

Same as it ever was, the 2015 session will commence with the pomp, circumstance and civility that's made the opening days a ho-hum but must-do requisite for even the most jaded Capitol insiders.

The caustic Dorothy Parker best captured the pre-session sentiment of those for whom the annual pageant evokes a cringe rather than cause for celebration: "They sicken of the calm who know the storm."

So with a sigh, we bid adieu to serenity, and brace ourselves for the storm.

DISGRACED HOUSE SPEAKER WALKS AWAY A WINNER:

Years after being ousted from the speaker's podium and resigning his House seat over corruption allegations, former House Speaker Ray Sansom walked away from the Leon County Courthouse on Friday as a winner after a Tallahassee judge granted his request to have the state pick up the tab for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

"I think today completely solidifies the fact that I was completely acquitted. I was found completely not guilty," Sansom, who four years ago was cleared of the charges that drove him out of office, told reporters after Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey issued her decision from the bench.

Sansom and his criminal defense attorney sued the state to try to force it to pay Sansom's hefty legal bills under a common-law principle that public officials who successfully defend themselves against charges related to public duties are entitled to have legal costs covered.

But the state argued that the manner in which prosecutor Willie Meggs decided to drop the case, which concerned a 2007 budget item that was supposed to pay for an emergency operations center in Sansom's Panhandle district, essentially amounted to a settlement of the case rather than a successful defense.

Meggs agreed to drop the case after being assured that Sansom and a political contributor, Jay Odom, would pay $206,000 to help reimburse the state for design costs of the project, which was never built. Sansom's attorneys note that Odom actually paid the money and contend that Sansom was not really a party to the agreement.

Dempsey's ruling came on the same day that Sansom took the stand, the first time he had ever testified in open court about the case that left a man who was briefly one of the most powerful figures in the state out of office and, for a time, unemployed.

COURTROOM SUNSHINE STRUGGLES;

An appellate panel on Monday shut down a case about whether public officials' use of blind trusts violates the state constitution's requirement that officials fully disclose their financial interests. Meanwhile, a courtroom fight over whether Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet violated the state's Sunshine Laws leading up to the ouster of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, who was forced to resign in December, escalated.

In the blind-trust case, Jim Apthorp, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Reubin Askew, filed a lawsuit last year alleging that a 2013 law allowing state officials to put their assets into blind trusts violated a constitutional requirement spearheaded by his late boss.

But a three-judge panel for the 1st District Court of Appeal tossed out the challenge, pointing to the "speculative nature" of the case. Apthorp's case "wholly failed to allege a bona fide, actual, present practical need for a declaration that the qualified blind trust statute is unconstitutional." In part, it said Apthorp did not allege any public official or candidate had used a blind trust in the most-recent financial disclosures.

Gov. Rick Scott used a blind trust during his first term in office but ended it last year and listed his financial assets as he qualified for re-election. That disclosure showed Scott's net worth at $132.7 million. After the disclosure, Scott put his assets in a new blind trust.

With Askew leading the effort, Florida voters in 1976 overwhelmingly approved the Sunshine Amendment, which included requiring public officials to disclose their financial interests.

Supporters of the 2013 law say blind trusts prevent conflicts of interest between officials' public duties and financial interests. A blind trust gives someone else the ability to manage investments without a politician's knowledge, but it doesn't require the same level of detail about officials' holdings as is required by typical financial-disclosure forms.

Judge Brad Thomas, however, wrote a concurring opinion that suggested the court has questions about the constitutionality of the law. He wrote that "our conclusion on jurisdiction should not be read as an imprimatur on the statute's constitutional validity."

The decision "should not be read to lend any support for the proposition that the statute at issue ensures 'full and public disclosure,' as mandated by ... the Florida Constitution,'' Thomas wrote.

In a separate case, the fallout from Bailey's FDLE ouster heated up this week as media organizations and the government-in-the-sunshine watchdogs filed an emergency motion asking the court to force Scott and the Cabinet, and their aides, to preserve electronic documents related to the issue.

Monday's motion came in a lawsuit filed earlier this month alleging that Scott and Cabinet members violated the state's Sunshine Law by communicating through aides about the removal of Bailey in December and the appointment of new FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen.

In the document filed Monday in Leon County circuit court, the plaintiffs in the case alleged that Scott and his staff got rid of public records in the past without properly storing them. It pointed to lost emails from Scott's transition team after the 2010 election and "multiple anomalies" about preserving public records that have been an issue in an otherwise unrelated lawsuit filed by Tallahassee attorney Steven Andrews against Scott.

The media organizations and other plaintiffs allege in the overall lawsuit that the Sunshine Law was violated because Scott and Cabinet members used aides as "conduits" to communicate about the Bailey ouster. Cabinet decisions are supposed to be made in public.

Scott's office has denied that discussions about Bailey violated the Sunshine Law.

"It has been a longstanding convention for governor's staff to provide information to Cabinet staff," the governor's office said in an email to reporters in late January. "This was the same process the Cabinet staff followed in respect to Gerald Bailey."

STORY OF THE WEEK: Tallahassee judge Angela Dempsey orders the state to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees amassed by former House Speaker Ray Sansom.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I will stand by this budget item for the rest of my life as being one of the best things that I've ever seen try to be done for my area." -- Former House Speaker Ray Sansom speaking in court about a 2007 budget item that was supposed to pay for an emergency operations center in the then-House budget chair's district and which led to Sansom's resignation from the speakership in 2009, and from the Legislature the following year.

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