Legislators are as legislators do

By Lucy Morgan, Times Senior Correspondent

Published Thursday, April 23, 2009

They clearly don't get it.

Something strange comes over state legislators when they gather inside the Capitol.

It's like everyone's IQ drops below room temperature — and in a building that is always colder than necessary lest someone break into a sweat — this is a dramatic drop.

It gets worse when a grand jury takes aim at them. This month, a Leon County Grand Jury indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom for official misconduct — accusing him of falsifying a budget record so he could slip $6 million into the state budget to build an airplane hangar for a friend and contributor.

Sansom says he'll be vindicated. And yes, he is innocent until proven guilty.

But the grand jury went a lot further and essentially indicted the entire Legislature for the way lawmakers cloak the budget process in secret and slip last-minute appropriations into the spending plan long after all the public meetings are over.

"That's the way it works,'' explained Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, as he defended Sansom's budgetary prowess.

Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, says the grand jury would see things differently if its members were in the Legislature.

Yes. That is the way it works. And perhaps it is time for it to end. When public officials decide how to spend public money, they ought to be doing it right out in the open so we can all see it.

And that's one of the differences between what Ray Sansom did and the dozens of hometown projects built at the behest of past speakers. When former Speaker Don Tucker got the money to build a civic center in Tallahassee plus a couple of million dollars extra in federal money, it was debated right out in the open. Not everyone liked it. But they knew about it.

When former Speaker Ralph Haben created a performing arts center for his Bradenton district, everyone knew it. We even knew about the time then Senate President W.D. Childers put money in the budget to build a football stadium at the University of West Florida, a school without a football team. (Gov. Bob Graham vetoed that one.)

Legislators are in full whine now, saying those nasty old grand jurors just don't understand how the system works. Ha. Sounds to me like they understood it just fine.

Big campaign donor gets state to build him an airplane hangar disguised as a college building 15 miles away from the campus. Without discussion or debate. No scrutiny by state education officials who normally approve such projects. No discussion by budget committees.

"Your grand jurors have determined that the funding for this hangar can be attributed directly and solely to Speaker Designate Ray Sansom,'' the grand jurors wrote. "No member of the Legislature ever saw this appropriation until it was inserted into the appropriation bill during conference.''

Is this the way you want your government to operate?

The grand jury thinks way too much power is vested in too few people when budgets are put together this way.

"This state should be guided in openness and transparency,'' the grand jury wrote.

The Legislature should clean up this process and make Florida an example as a state that "works for the people and not the special interest of those who have money to influence the Legislature."

You would think a grand jury's criticism might move some of these guys to clean up their act. You would be wrong. They're too busy defending it.

House Republicans are really making a name for themselves. It is almost as though they have a meeting every morning to dream up a way to look more stupid than the day before. Surely it was at such a meeting that they decided to introduce last-minute measures that would make it harder for Floridians to vote and welcome oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

And as if to add fuel to the fire they allowed testimony from an energy committee that will not disclose its membership and a lawyer from Texas who will not disclose his clients.

All this done as they looked down the barrel of a grand jury report criticizing secrecy.

Sounds very much like that April day in 1991 when another grand jury fired a few shots across the bow, criticizing lawmakers for taking trips and gifts from lobbyists.

That didn't end well for the Legislature. Twenty-four of them were charged with failing to report the largess: white wing dove hunting in Mexico, a few days in Paris, ski trips to Park City, Utah, credit cards for shopping trips — all sorts of trips and gifts.

And on the day that the grand jury trounced them, House members took to the floor and gave a standing ovation to a member that accused the press of making them look bad. They also tossed verbal brickbats at Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs, the same prosecutor who led the Sansom grand jury.

Meggs knows the score. As he awaited word from deliberating grand jurors earlier this month, he said he's likely to need a bulletproof vest and armed guards if he decides to cross the street between the Leon County Courthouse and the Capitol.

It took legislators another 15 years to fix the trips and gifts problem. But they all entered pleas and paid fines and a few went home to face voters who put them out to pasture.

Can't say these folks are fast learners.

But they do provide entertainment and job security for reporters, prosecutors and defense attorneys.


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