News of Rep. Ray Sansom's questionable American Express charges reverberated through the Republican Party on Friday, with two top senators voluntarily giving up their party-issued cards and the state party chairman making moves to eliminate all cards, including his own.
Chairman Jim Greer is expected to announce the policy change this morning in Orlando, where the party is holding its quarterly meeting.
"It's the right thing to do," Sen. Mike Haridopolos, the Melbourne Republican in line to become Senate president in 2010, said of his plans to surrender his card.
Senate President Jeff Atwater is also giving his up, Haridopolos said. "We didn't want that perception (of egregious spending) to fall on us."
Top Republican officials have long had access to credit cards but the public — and more to the point, campaign contributors — have not been able to see who is spending what. The secrecy changed with the release of Sansom's American Express reports as part of the criminal case against him.
A grand jury in Tallahassee has indicted Sansom, R-Destin, on an official misconduct charge over securing $6 million in taxpayer money for an airport building that a developer and campaign contributor, Jay Odom, allegedly wanted to use for his private jet business. He has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors would not say why they want the report but could be trying to link Sansom's spending with contributions from Odom, who has given about $1 million to GOP interests.
In the two years before Sansom became House speaker — a position he lost amid the controversy over the airport and other money he steered to his local college — he used the credit card for travel related to his job as the head of the House election effort.
But the records also show he also used the card to spend thousands for family travel, including a trip to London. The trip coincided with a trade mission Gov. Charlie Crist embarked on — a trip that raised its own questions about lavish spending.
Sansom spent more than $11,000 at Best Buy and nearly $9,000 at a florist in Fort Walton Beach. It is not clear how those relate to party business, though flowers could be for ceremonies and congratulations or condolences for supporters.
He also used it to buy smoothies, items at Target and spent $839 at Starbucks. He shopped at Cole Haan and Kenneth Cole. While in London, he made a $222 purchase at the luxury retailer Harrods and dined at TGI Friday's. The personal spending could raise tax issues.
Though Sansom was not using taxpayer money, the spending has infuriated some Republicans who think it contradicts the party message of fiscal conservatism.
Greer, who has also come under attack for spending and for not stopping Sansom and others' indulgences, has already pulled back some credit cards in the past year. But he will go further today in Orlando.
That will not satisfy everyone. Some critics want him to open up the books for all to see — something Greer has so far refused. A spokeswoman, Katie Gordon, said Friday that Greer complied with the subpoena for Sansom's records.
"At this point I don't think we intend to release anything further," she said.
Haridopolos said after reading a Times/Herald report about the spending that he and Atwater decided it was best to give up their cards. Both maintain they have been responsible.
"I said, 'You know what, I'm not going to get into this mess,' " Haridopolos said, adding he had his American Express for only about a month and barely used it.
"In this day and age, the only way to get any credibility back is to be transparent in how we spend money," Haridopolos said. "People are rightfully demanding transparency."
Sansom and his lawyer did not return calls for comment Friday. But the lawmaker defended the credit card charges in a statement to his hometown paper, the Northwest Florida Daily News.
"I was right in order with anyone with a credit card," Sansom said, naming former House Speaker Marco Rubio and future speaker Dean Cannon. "That's how we conduct business to be successful."
Sansom said the GOP raised millions in the time he oversaw the House campaigns and maintained its sizable advantage over Democrats.
"I'm very pleased and proud of our efforts," he said. "You have to spend money to raise money, and we raised more money than in any previous election year."
Sansom then said he would explain some of the charges, like the $839 Starbucks tab, but "off the record." The reporter refused and Sansom ended the call, according to the story.
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.