TALLAHASSEE — Ray Sansom resigned from the Florida House of Representatives on Sunday night, a dramatic decision on the eve of an ethics trial by his colleagues over his dealings with a Panhandle college.
The move, rendered in a letter hand-delivered by Sansom's attorney to the Capitol shortly before 8 p.m., ends a career that once put Sansom at the apex of Florida politics but unraveled in scandal as he took a job at Northwest Florida State College on the same day in November 2008 that he was sworn in as House speaker.
Sansom, R-Destin, did not acknowledge wrongdoing but said he was stepping down out of love for the chamber. The resignation was effective immediately.
"Let me state that this decision should not be received as an admission of any wrongdoing," he wrote in a letter to Speaker Larry Cretul, who took command last spring when Sansom was ousted by fellow Republicans. "On the contrary, I have steadfastly maintained that I am innocent of any wrongdoing and I will never relent from that position."
The chairman of the disciplinary panel called it the right move.
"This is a resolution that's in the best interest of everyone involved. He is no longer a member of the Florida House," said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
"We are his colleagues and that makes it heart-wrenching."
The Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct will still meet at 10 this morning, but the resignation will render the hearing moot.
Sansom, 47 and a father of three, will lose his health insurance benefits but will still be eligible for a pension for his time as a public servant.
He insisted he acted properly despite ample signs showing he used his power as House budget writer in 2007 and 2008 to funnel tens of millions in taxpayer money to the small college.
"This not how the people of northwest Florida thought it would end when Ray rose to a position of great trust," said state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who had been a close friend and whose son is already running for Sansom's seat.
Sansom was in his eighth and final year due to term limits, and a special election could be called to replace him, even though the legislative session begins March 2.
The prospect of a messy, public ethics investigation was something few fellow Republicans wanted to endure, and it had the potential to embarrass current and former lawmakers who would have been called to testify, including U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio, who picked Sansom as his budget chief when he was speaker. Rubio had said he delegated authority and was unaware of the extent of Sansom's dealings.
The panel of Sansom's peers — three fellow Republicans and two Democrats — was to review over the next few days the $35 million in extra or accelerated funding he steered to the college before taking an unadvertised $110,000 job there.
It was to look at legislation Sansom worked on behind the scenes with his future boss at the college.
And it was to examine a $6 million airplane building that Sansom friend and major Republican donor Jay Odom wanted to use for his corporate jet business.
There were also allegations over a meeting of the college board of trustees that Sansom helped set up at a private club at Florida State University, far from the college campus in Niceville.
The ultimate question this week was, did Sansom damage public faith in the House?
The House had spent months and more than $234,000 on lawyers to investigate Sansom, who certainly has his own mountain of legal bills.
"Obviously there may have been issues of ethical lapses," said Rep. J.C. Planas, R-Miami. "But you also have to question the wisdom of all the money we spent on the independent counsel for a guy who's basically going to be gone in six months. It's a sad day."
Though some Republicans had been privately urging Sansom to resign, the news still came as a surprise. Sansom's lawyer, Gloria Fletcher, had been vigorously preparing for the hearing, as had the special House prosecutor, Melanie Hines.
Fletcher had cast the proceeding as a political "witch hunt" — noting a Democrat filed the complaint against him — and said that the entire Legislature and the governor signed off on the budgets containing the money for the college.
Hines portrayed the evidence as clear and damning. "According to the proof to be offered at the hearing, Sansom has violated the principles of Legislative ethics: autonomy, accountability and responsibility," she wrote in a pretrial stipulation.
But Sunday afternoon, Fletcher called Galvano and suggested resignation was a possibility.
She delivered Sansom's letter shortly before 8 p.m.
Sansom's troubles are far from over. He has been indicted for the airport deal (he says it was for an emergency operations and training center only) and faces first-degree felony grand theft charges. The court case is grinding through Leon County Circuit Court.
The Florida Commission on Ethics had also been investigating, though the resignation could throw that into doubt. Federal authorities, including the FBI and IRS, have looked into related issues as well.
As part of the criminal case, it was revealed that Sansom used a Republican Party-issued American Express card to rack up at least $173,000 in expenses, including a trip to Europe — cracking open a vigorous debate within the party over lavish spending and calls for other lawmakers to reveal their expenses.
The now-defunct House inquiry began after a Tampa-area Democratic activist, Susan T. Smith, filed a complaint alleging her faith in the legislative body had been diminished by Sansom's actions. Smith, who was driving to Tallahassee on Sunday night for the trial, said he did the right thing.
"It shows that ordinary citizens can demand accountability," she said.
But Smith added that it was unfortunate that the rest of the issues — including a broader examination of a state budget process — did not come under scrutiny.
Sansom made it clear he expects to be vindicated, writing in his letter, "I can assure all concerned that the time will come where I will be afforded an opportunity to fully answer all questions and I anxiously await an opportunity to do so."
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Scott Keeler contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]