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Florida House Speaker Sansom, college have money connection

SANTA ROSA BEACH — The same day Ray Sansom became speaker of the Florida House, he took a second job, as a high-paid administrator for the college he steered money to last spring.

During the legislative session, Sansom, R-Destin, quietly worked $200,000 into the budget to help Northwest Florida State College create a permanent home for its "leadership institute" — a move that irritated then-House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami, reported first on tampabay.com.

Sansom also backed legislation that propelled the former community college, and some others, into four-year schools that can offer bachelor's degrees.

"Was there a quid pro quo? I think there is reason for the average taxpayer to be concerned," said Damien Filer of Progress Florida, an advocacy group in Tallahassee.

Sansom and the man who hired him denied that notion.

"Absolutely not," college president Bob Richburg said in an interview. "I hired Ray Sansom because I'm a great admirer of his."

His $110,000 salary will not come from taxpayer dollars, the college said.

"Remember, we are a citizens' Legislature," said Sansom, who has a master's degree in education and previously worked for an electric company. "We have jobs, we have careers."

But the development caps off a rough first week for Sansom, who became speaker of the 84th Florida House of Representatives on Tuesday.

He already was facing public criticism for hosting a retreat for more than 70 House Republicans at the cushy WaterColor beach resort near his home.

The tab, easily in the tens of thousands, was picked up by the state Republican Party, yet the getaway comes amid great financial strain for the state and its citizens.

There was no mention of Sansom's new job on the day he became speaker, and the college did not widely distribute a news release Wednesday.

Sansom's staff said he is a low-key person, preferring not to draw attention to himself.

"To the people who are going to be cynical about this, it doesn't matter about the timing," Richburg said.

Sansom joins Northwest Florida State College on Dec. 1 and will oversee development and planning. His duties will include oversight of grant acquisition, fostering relations with the business community and overseeing a training school for emergency response teams.

He acknowledged getting money for the leadership institute, a school of sorts for community members and corporations, but said, "None of that has anything to do with me or how I'm paid."

At the resort on Wednesday, Sansom declared that no pet projects would be allowed in the upcoming budget, which already has a $3.5-billion hole over the current budget due to an eroding state economy.

"It looks like he got a whopper for himself and shut the door on everyone else," Filer said.

Sansom has a long relationship with the school. In the 1980s, he put himself through what was then Okaloosa-Walton Community College. His wife also attended.

This year, Sansom championed legislation to elevate the school and others into state colleges, hence the new name. The designation allows the college to offer bachelor's degrees in much-needed fields like nursing and technology.

When Gov. Charlie Crist traveled to Northwest College's Niceville campus to sign the bill, Sansom was at his side.

Now he will join the staff.

"I'm very excited about the opportunity," Sansom said during a break at the WaterColor retreat. "I term out in two years, and I want to make my permanent home there at the college."

The appointment presents a possible conflict of interest for Sansom. But he said House rules would only prohibit him from voting on something in which he would personally benefit, such as salary increases.

Sansom, a 46-year-old father of three, noted he has a master's degree in education from the University of West Florida and has worked for the Okaloosa County School Board and served on the County Commission before joining the Legislature in 2002.

"I'm qualified for this job," he said. "I'm well-qualified."

Previously, Sansom had earned about $84,000 as a representative for the Alabama Electric Cooperative Inc. On his latest financial disclosure form, he lists a net worth of $780,000.

He earns about $42,000 as House speaker.

Florida House Speaker Sansom, college have money connection 11/20/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 26, 2008 11:10am]
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