TALLAHASSEE — Three days after announcing he was temporarily stepping aside as speaker of the Florida House, Ray Sansom will be forced tonight to fully give up the job.
Worried about the cloud of legal investigations surrounding Sansom and conceding that rules do not allow for a protracted speaker-in-limbo, top Republicans called a 9 p.m. meeting in Tallahassee to anoint a new leader of the GOP caucus.
"We must not allow the turbulence of the past to damage our ability to focus on the tremendous challenges facing our state," Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, wrote in a memo to colleagues. "There is too much at stake for Floridians for us to be distracted."
The move is designed to install Rep. Larry Cretul of Ocala as the permanent speaker when the regular 60-day session begins March 3 and to bring order and focus as the House prepares for a difficult budget-cutting session.
If it goes as planned, tonight will complete a swift and intense fall for Sansom, 46, who spent years working toward one of the most powerful political offices in Florida only to watch it crumble.
Just days ago he was pledging to hold on and fight allegations that his six-figure job at Northwest Florida State College was a reward for millions in construction money and other favors he got for the school before taking an unadvertised $110,000 job there in November — on the same day he was sworn in as speaker.
Among the questions raised in a series of articles by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau is whether $6 million Sansom secured in 2007 was for an airport project that would benefit a friend and major GOP donor, Jay Odom.
Sansom has denied any wrongdoing but as questions increased and legal and ethical investigations began, pressure mounted on him to do something.
So on Friday, the Destin Republican recused himself of speaker duties, citing the legal and ethical inquiries, which include a grand jury, and delegated duties to Cretul.
But the unprecedented move gave way to immediate questions about whether Sansom could do such a thing, at least over a long period of time.
By Saturday, top House Republicans were wondering themselves and trying to tamp down a behind-the-scenes scramble for power.
Rules Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, concluded Sunday that Sansom would have to step down, "in the abundance of caution and in order to ensure certainty and avoid further ambiguity."
He called for a caucus meeting to be followed by a formal vote on a new speaker March 3, the first day of the regular 60-day session.
Galvano, who ran against Sansom for speaker several years ago, said he would not seek the job.
The caucus meeting was called for 9 p.m. because many members will be traveling back to Tallahassee today for committee meetings.
Sansom is currently the "Republican leader" under GOP caucus rules. The plan calls for him to lose that title today, kicking off a 15-day countdown to pick a new leader. Candidates would have seven days to file.
But a two-thirds vote of the caucus could shortcut the waiting period and allow the group to pick a new leader immediately.
Barring a coup, that would likely be Cretul, the 61-year-old real estate agent and Vietnam War veteran suddenly thrust into one of the most powerful jobs in the state. Cretul had been acting as speaker pro tempore, which heretofore has been mostly a ceremonial position.
"If two-thirds freely want Larry Cretul to stay on, that's a good thing, that's democracy," said Rep. J.C. Planas, R-Miami, who was the first to publicly question Sansom's half-measure withdrawal. "If they don't freely want him and arms are being twisted, I hope members stand up for themselves."
Even if he gets the nod tonight, Cretul would not be the official, permanent speaker.
That would have to wait until March 3, as a new speaker must be chosen by the full 120-member House.
Sansom was aware Sunday of the development, though it was unclear whether he agreed he should be stripped of the job.
He will remain as a House member, though he currently does not have any committee assignments.
Cretul has already made moves to rework the office, removing Sansom's chief of staff, Mike Hansen. The job is expected to go to former state Rep. Dudley Goodlette, a highly respected Republican lawyer from Naples who was forced out by term limits in 2006.
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.