Records of GOP-sponsored credit card reveal lavish spending by Sansom

Ray Sansom

Ray Sansom

TALLAHASSEE — Ousted House Speaker Ray Sansom racked up about $173,000 on his Republican Party-issued credit card, taking his family on a trip to Europe, making visits to Best Buy and spending thousands on flowers, clothing, meals and hotels.

As a recession tightened on Florida families, Sansom was spending freely, records show, on tuxedo rentals, Chinese food and a steady flow of coffee — $839 at Starbucks alone.

The American Express statements, covering a two-year period, were made public Thursday as part of the criminal case against Sansom, who is accused of official misconduct in 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.

Taken together, the credit card charges cast the Destin Republican in a starkly different light from the small town politician who preached fiscal restraint.

"There are an awful lot of people who are concerned how the party is spending money," said veteran Tallahassee lobbyist Ken Plante. "I don't think they'll be very happy with this. It's troubling."

No such internal financial details have been made public in recent years. They have long been a source of intense curiosity and friction among top campaign contributors worried their money is being misused.

Under state law, the specifics of party credit card expenditures are shielded from the public. Only bottom-line amounts are revealed. That makes the Sansom reports all the more eye-catching. He spent $11,475 at Best Buy alone and $8,993 at Friendly Florist in Fort Walton Beach.

Records show that numerous top politicians and officials with the Republican Party of Florida racked up $3.6 million in credit card charges from January 2007 to June 30, 2009, so Sansom's expenses may not be unusual.

The Florida Democratic Party doesn't give credit cards to officials.

Republican officials would not say Thursday whether he or his family reimbursed their travel and expenses.

"The Republican Party is a tax-exempt organization, so it's a little gray," said Mary Anne Reilly, a tax expert who lives in St. Petersburg. "But I can't see how you could justify those expenses" if they weren't reimbursed. "It doesn't pass the smell test."

Moreover, the lavish spending could hurt the GOP's effort to raise money.

Sansom, 47, was one of several top elected Republicans to hold a card — his has since been taken away — as he oversaw House election efforts in the two years before he was to be sworn in as speaker in November 2008.

Others include current Senate President Jeff Atwater; the president-to-be, Sen. Mike Haridopolos; and Florida party chairman Jim Greer.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, who took over after Sansom was ousted by his GOP colleagues earlier this year, does not have a card, nor does Rep. Dean Cannon, the Winter Park Republican in line to be speaker in 2010.

Some of Sansom's charges seem related to official business, which would involve travel for fundraisers and to recruit candidates. And without seeing statements for other card holders, it's difficult to characterize the level of Sansom's spending.

But the reports, more than 100 pages, reveal scores of dubious charges. Among them:

• $2,112 at the Apple Store in Manhattan just before Sansom and, his wife and three daughters flew to Europe in July 2008. Their plane tickets were charged to the American Express card, as were meals at several restaurants. While there, Sansom spent $222 at Harrods, a luxury retailer.

• $348 for personal babysitting services from Nanny Can in December 2006.

• $320 at Cole Haan in Destin in May 2008 and $224 at Kenneth Cole in October 2007.

• $1,953 for tuxedo rentals.

• $69.50 for fabric and yarn at Jo-Ann Fabrics in Fort Walton Beach in March 2007.

Sansom charged meals in restaurants as disparate as Diva in the SOHO district of Manhattan and Burger King in Orlando. He bought subscriptions to Time and Sports Illustrated.

Greer, the Republican Party chairman, would not discuss Sansom's spending directly but said he has taken steps in the last year to rein in excessive use of party Amex cards.

"As chairman of the party, all expenditures fall under my responsibility," said Greer, whose own spending habits have been called into question by party insiders and donors. He would not say whether some of Sansom's spending was inappropriate or whether Sansom reimbursed the party.

State Attorney Willie Meggs, who convened the grand jury that indicted Sansom in April, would not comment on why he subpoenaed the records.

It seems plausible, however, that Meggs is trying to link Sansom's spending with party donations from Odom. Odom has given about $1 million to the Republican Party, candidates and a political committee Sansom controlled.

"While direct evidence was not developed that Jay Odom would acquire an aircraft hangar in exchange for his generous campaign contributions, there is a strong inference of impropriety," the grand jury stated in its April 17 report accompanying the indictment.

Sansom and Odom have pleaded not guilty, as has Bob Richburg, former president of Northwest Florida State College, which said it would use the $6 million in state money to build an emergency operations and training center. The men have been charged with official misconduct in securing the money.

The project was scrapped amid the controversy, first reported by the Times/Herald. The money was returned to the state, and Richburg was fired.

The money was part of $35 million in extra or accelerated funding Sansom got for the college in the two years he controlled the House budget. He took a $110,000 job at the school on the same day last November he was sworn in as speaker but was forced to resign amid statewide outrage.

On May 3, 2007, while Sansom was spending freely on the party's credit card, he was touting the House's fiscal responsibility in cutting spending and avoiding tax increases.

"With this budget we are making a long-term commitment to responsible spending," Sansom said.

In defending cuts to schools and justice programs in 2008, Sansom said: "We cannot spend money we don't have."

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

Sansom's charges

A sampling of purchases from 2007 and 2008 on a Republican Party-issued credit card.

Purchases Amount
Apple Store $2,112
Harrods $222
Cole Haan $320
Kenneth Cole $224
Tuxedo rentals $1,953
Jo-Ann Fabrics $69.50

Records of GOP-sponsored credit card reveal lavish spending by Sansom 08/20/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 7:32pm]

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