Ray Sansom may have quit the Florida House last week to avoid an ethics trial, but the scandal has legs in the Republican U.S. Senate primary between Gov. Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio.
After raising the issue behind the scenes for weeks, Crist's campaign is openly asking what Rubio knew about Sansom's dealings with a Panhandle college.
Crist is trying to draw comparisons between the job Sansom took at Northwest Florida State College and one Rubio took at Florida International University as he was leaving the House in 2008.
"It's a pretty glaring, striking similarity," Crist said in an interview. "What's up with that?"
Crist has his own Sansom issues — he failed to veto a controversial $6 million airport project that largely caused Sansom's downfall — and was reluctant to criticize the former House speaker even as questions about the former speaker's actions accumulated over the past year.
But Crist is injecting the issue into the campaign as he tries to recover from Rubio's underdog-turned-front-runner status. "It's certainly fair game," Crist said.
Rubio declined to be interviewed. His campaign cast Crist's statements as desperation.
Rubio worked closely with Sansom over the years, making the Destin Republican his budget chief in the 2007 and 2008 legislative sessions. To reinforce that image, Crist supporters have taken to the blogs and posted an old picture of Sansom and Rubio hugging (a counterweight to Rubio's repeated use of a photo of Crist hugging President Barack Obama) and pointing out that Rubio's Facebook account has photos of the two men together.
Like Crist, Rubio has been careful when talking about fellow Republican Sansom. But he has denied he knew the extent of his budget dealings.
"As speaker, if anyone wants to put responsibility for anything on you, you have to accept that," Rubio told the St. Petersburg Times in the summer.
"But I would just say the Legislature is not run by a single person. We delegated a lot of responsibility, and I think that's how you run an organization, and unfortunately in this case it led to some unfortunate decisions that were made."
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After a year of negative headlines, many Republicans were glad to see Sansom quit — and even more relieved the ethics hearing did not occur. Crist was probably not among them.
A number of current and former lawmakers, including Rubio, could have been called to testify. Even if Rubio had restated his position, the testimony, made under oath, would have been embarrassing.
Undeterred, the Crist campaign quickly issued a news release Feb. 22, the day the ethics hearing was to begin. The news release suggested Rubio had not fully detailed his relationship with his "hand-picked" budget chairman.
It mentioned Sansom's criminal case could extend "well beyond the August primary election" and added it was "essential" voters know what role Rubio may have played.
"To that end, we are confident that you will agree to release all e-mails and documents between Rep. Sansom, yourself, and your respective staff."
The next day, the campaign again demanded the release of e-mails, but Rubio's campaign has said all documents are public.
As budget chairman, Sansom steered $35 million in extra or accelerated money to Northwest Florida State College, where he later took a $110,000 part-time, unadvertised job on the same day he was sworn in as speaker.
Rubio helped Florida International University get millions while he was speaker and then took a part-time teaching job there paying $69,000.
What separates Sansom from Rubio and about 20 other current and past lawmakers who hold jobs at state colleges and universities is a $6 million airport project Sansom funded in 2007.
A Times/Herald review and subsequent criminal investigation showed a friend of Sansom's wanted to use the building for his corporate jet business. Sansom and the friend, Panhandle developer Jay Odom, have been indicted over the project, as has the former president of Northwest Florida State College. The case is slowly proceeding through court.
But Crist and Rubio share a common response to the airport: We didn't know.
Both point to budget language that suggests it was merely an emergency operations and training center. Crist's budget office even asked for more information from the college and records show officials scrambled to come up with language.
"It was misrepresented," said Crist, who last year sent a letter to the college trustees asking them to return the money for the building, which was still in the planning stage.
Rubio has offered the same explanation why the last-minute appropriation missed his scrutiny.
But as the campaign intensifies, it's likely the Sansom issue will not go away.
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]