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Cretul takes House reins

Ray Sansom adjusts his collar as Republicans meet to accept his resignation as speaker Monday in Tallahassee. When it came time for him to vote on Larry Cretul as the new leader, he answered like the rest: “Cretul.”

Associated Press

Ray Sansom adjusts his collar as Republicans meet to accept his resignation as speaker Monday in Tallahassee. When it came time for him to vote on Larry Cretul as the new leader, he answered like the rest: “Cretul.”

TALLAHASSEE — Ray Sansom's short-lived and tumultuous tenure as House speaker effectively ended Monday night when his Republican colleagues, in an unprecedented and solemn procedure, anointed a new leader.

Sansom had not yet presided over his first regular legislative session before being confronted with multiple investigations over his dealings with a state college. He issued a letter of resignation as Republican leader at the 9 p.m. caucus meeting.

Then the members waived rules for a 15-day waiting period and picked Rep. Larry Cretul as the new leader. The vote was unanimous, 74-0.

"It was something that had to be done so we can get the work done for the people of Florida," said Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City. "It was nothing any of us wanted to do. I feel like I've lost my best friend."

Although Sansom has yet to testify on his behalf or even face a charge, lawmakers signaled the distraction was too great for him to retain the post, even as he temporarily stepped aside Friday.

House rules, however, suggest he could not do that over a long period of time, and it is unknown how long the investigations could last.

The chamber was quiet during Monday night's process, only one voice at a time filling the chamber that Sansom hoped to lead for two years.

At 9:11 p.m., Sansom's resignation as caucus leader was accepted. Then Cretul was nominated as his replacement. The names of each of the 74 members were called out for the vote. When it came time for Sansom, he responded like the rest: "Cretul."

It was all over at 9:18 p.m.

"It was just surreal," said Rep. Sandy Adams of Oviedo.

"Certainly there was a distraction taking place in the Legislature and we wanted to do the best we could to make a clean break,'' said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

On March 3, the first day of the 60-day session, Cretul is expected to be voted in as permanent speaker by the entire 120-member House.

From then on, the door would appear shut for Sansom to return as speaker.

"Our immediate focus now is to get back to business of the Florida House and also to the households of the state of Florida," Cretul, 61, said during a 1 p.m. news conference Monday that served as his introduction as the new leader.

The soft-spoken real estate agent from Ocala, who took over for Sansom four days ago, pledged to be a calming force and foster teamwork.

"I did not campaign for this position, and I have no promises to fulfill," he said, adding he prepared for the day by reviewing some favorite books: the Bible, The Power of Words and The Art of War, which he dryly joked would be useful for upcoming budget negotiations with the Senate.

Cretul, who has shared a Tallahassee condo with Sansom, said that he plans to appoint his friend to some committees and that Sansom would continue to be a valuable member of the Legislature.

But the day was a decidedly low moment for Sansom, a former Okaloosa County commissioner who carried with him to Tallahassee the hopes and expectations of the Panhandle, an area that sometimes feels overlooked in the political calculus of Florida.

Sansom, a 46-year-old father of three, faces investigations from a grand jury, a special House investigator and the Florida Commission on Ethics over accepting an unadvertised $110,000 part-time job at Northwest Florida State College on Nov. 18, the same day he became speaker .

The investigations were triggered by a series of stories by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau that detailed how, in the two years before becoming speaker, Sansom helped the college get about $35 million in accelerated or extra money, including $6 million for an airport project that's similar to a jet hangar a Sansom friend was trying to build.

Sansom defended the spending, saying it was all money designated for education use so it couldn't have been used to patch other holes in the budget.

He said that at the time, lawmakers were trying to push construction projects through quickly to generate jobs as the economy was beginning to soften. He said he did not know his friend, Jay Odom, was proposing a similar taxpayer-funded building at Destin Airport.

For weeks, as Sansom dodged reporters, House Republicans kept quiet about his troubles. But as public criticism grew and investigations piled up, lawmakers began to pressure Sansom to step aside.

Sansom's criminal defense lawyer said Sansom is eager to testify before the grand jury and has already contacted State Attorney Willie Meggs.

"Any time he's ready," Peter Antonacci said Monday. "My client's ready."

Staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Cretul takes House reins 02/02/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 6, 2009 7:33am]
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