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ABSENCE OF OUTRAGE

AS THE COURTROOM DOOR swung open, Ray Sansom immediately headed for the elevator. Reporters scrambled to catch up and ask the ousted House speaker what he told the grand jury.

Suddenly, a hard crash. A photographer backpedaling in the narrow hallway hit a bench and fell to the floor. Sansom, who blames the news media for his troubles, reached down and made sure the man was okay. Then he disappeared.

The scene at the Leon County Courthouse in April gave a glimpse of what many in the Legislature still believe is the real Ray Sansom: the decent and caring family man, the good guy.

Even now, some legislators view their twice-indicted colleague as a tragic figure, a victim of misunderstanding. They do not see what the grand jury saw: a man who used his budget-writing authority to direct taxpayer money into constructing a college building that, indignant denials aside, was designed to allow a private developer (and Sansom political contributor) to park airplanes.

In Tallahassee, with all the evidence now out in the open, they are not outraged. Instead, there is disbelief and even disdain for the grand jury's laserlike conclusions. The damning report by the House's own investigator, released only days ago, was greeted by lawmakers with measured concern for ... Sansom.

It only proves how insular and tone deaf Tallahassee can be.

Few seem willing to do anything about the culture of pork barrel politics, secrecy and last-minute deals that favors high-ranking officials like Sansom. Gov. Charlie Crist demanded the college return the construction money, but he has said next to nothing about what should happen to Sansom.

The reluctance to act reveals long-standing flaws in the culture of the capital and the Legislature as an institution.

Sansom, R-Destin, and other speakers are chosen in popularity contests years before they have proven themselves worthy of responsible leadership. A lockstep mentality in the 120-member House punishes dissent. And lawmakers feel their effectiveness depends largely on how much state money they bring home.

Sansom acknowledged that on the day he was indicted. "I have always worked hard for my constituents and my district to bring needed projects and funding to the Panhandle."

The process creates incentives for people to put money in their own pockets. Increasingly, the state's colleges and universities have become an employment agency for lawmakers like Sansom, who took a job at Northwest Florida State College on the same day last November he was sworn in as speaker.

Sansom and his defenders saw nothing wrong with that, but citizens flooded the Capitol with calls and e-mails. How can the speaker of the House hold a high-paying job with a state-funded institution? How can he work for the same school that got millions in extra construction money (including $6 million for a suspicious airport building) that Sansom himself arranged when he was the House budget writer?

The public got it. Tallahassee didn't. Weeks followed before GOP leaders ousted Sansom as speaker out of fear it would hurt their control of the Legislature.

Then came the indictments and a blistering grand jury report that accused the Legislature of failing to remember to whom they are ultimately responsible: the taxpayers.

Citing testimony that 11th-hour, multimillion-dollar budget deals are routine, the grand jury said: "It is small wonder, with this attitude, that Florida is broke financially. The Legislature needs to remember that they do not print money."

The scolding brought silence or indignation. "It seems pretty political," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, virtually accused State Attorney Willie Meggs of misconduct. "It's not the purpose of a grand jury to be offering criticism of a political system," Ambler said.

"People (around the capital) saw this as an aberration, as a prosecutor being too aggressive," said Curt Kiser, a veteran lobbyist and former Pinellas County GOP lawmaker. "But a lot of us are sitting back and saying, 'There's a new perspective. This could happen to a lot more people.' "

Kiser and others see a new willingness by prosecutors to investigate political corruption, and cite the string of Palm Beach County commissioners who have been sentenced to prison in recent years. "You're going to find yourself in trouble if you don't pay attention to what's evolving in criminal law," Kiser said.

Lawmakers are quick to point out some changes in the last legislative session. The budget conference process was more open than it has been, with usually stealthy "proviso" language directing how money can be spent revealed in public meetings.

"My hope is that this year was just the beginning," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who is in line to be speaker in 2012.

Discipline was easy, though, in a drastically lean budget year. Despite the new transparency, presiding officers spent more than a week in secret before public budget sessions began.

And the consequences of Sansom's spending did not stop Sen. Alexander, the top budget writer in his chamber, from adding millions in extra funding for the University of South Florida's Lakeland campus.

Alexander was open about it, and he does not hold a job with the school. Still, his actions reaffirm the prevailing attitude in Tallahassee. "Life," he told a reporter, "is not fair."

• • •

So what can be done?

Veterans of the system struggle over that question. But lawmakers could start with a deep review of the appropriations system.

An obvious fix is requiring all college construction projects to go through planning stages and gain approval from the Department of Education or Board of Governors.

Unplanned projects like Sansom's airport building could not be added at the last minute. He would have to produce more than a single page with a few lines of type to justify using $6 million in taxpayer money.

Also, curtail the habit among lawmakers to pack all the funding for a long-term college project into a single year, ignoring timetables set by state education officials.

Sansom excelled at the practice, known as accelerated funding. It's a big part of how he got about $35 million for the school in the two years he was in charge of the state budget. One project for the school ballooned from $1 million to $25.5 million in a single year. A program specialist for the Department of Education told investigators that to justify lump-sum spending like that a school should be seeing full-time enrollment triple or even quadruple.

Unless you have a friend writing the state budget.

A harder challenge would be to bring more fairness and sunlight to the appropriations process. Every year brings examples of lawmakers trying to slip projects under the radar. Some are exposed; many are not.

The House and Senate could impose rules for more discussion and review of local projects. Lawmakers could make them apply to presiding officers, who enjoy unchecked power to get what they want. Even when their desires are valid, their methods taint the process.

"Until a group of members rise up and complain, nothing will change," said former state Sen. Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor, who is running for the Legislature again. "They have to show some spine."

Complain? They won't even help get to the bottom of things when Floridians complain. The House's special investigator pointed out in his report that some lawmakers declined to cooperate. Specifically, former Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, who was the Senate's budget-writing counterpart to Sansom, refused through an attorney to answer questions.

In fact, the general counsel for the Senate issued a blanket ban, saying no current or former members of the Senate, or staff, would answer questions about the Sansom matter.

See the problem?

The House culture also is partly a reflection of the hyperspeed process in which future speakers are chosen by their peers.

Ambitious lawmakers start working toward leadership posts as soon as they are elected, locking up pledges by forming alliances with people they barely know. The race for speaker is often decided before a lawmaker has a chance to prove himself in debate or handle a difficult issue.

The rapid pace can be blamed on term limits, even if an eight-year cap on service in the House makes sense in a broader context. Legislative leaders could restrict the speaker selection process, just as they privately suggested the two candidates for 2014 cool things down.

The problems are not simple to solve because they would require lawmakers to reform themselves. But if the Sansom scandal isn't a warning, it's at least a perfect time for the Legislature to reconsider the way it conducts business.

"They need to be thoughtful and deliberate," said former House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, who like many says Sansom is a good guy who deserves his day in court.

"No system is perfect and this is a great opportunity to look at it more closely and find ways to make it more transparent to the working man and working woman."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

Your guide to the evidence
in the Sansom case. 4P

ABSENCE OF OUTRAGE 06/27/09 [Last modified: Sunday, June 28, 2009 4:09am]

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