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Hangar isn't former state House Speaker Ray Sansom's only problem

Ray Sansom’s criminal trial is tentatively set to start in September.

Ray Sansom’s criminal trial is tentatively set to start in September.

Winning the support of state Rep. Ray Sansom to use more than $8 million in taxpayer money on a "leadership institute" at his hometown college took only 22 minutes.

The formal proposal arrived in his e-mail box at 10:33 a.m. on Aug. 21, 2007, and after trading e-mails with college president Bob Richburg, Sansom pledged at 10:55 to "get to work on funds."

Richburg counseled that getting the money would "involve some special legislative strategy," and Sansom quietly delivered for his future boss at Northwest Florida State College.

Tuesday, a five-member legislative panel will begin to investigate Sansom's dealings with the small Panhandle college and whether he damaged public "faith and confidence in the integrity of the Florida House of Representatives." Over two years before he became speaker, Sansom directed $35 million in extra or accelerated funding for the school.

Then, on the same day last November the Destin Republican was sworn in as speaker, Sansom took an unadvertised $110,000-a-year job at the college, a position for which he helped write the job description months earlier. His duties included oversight of the institute, according to investigative files.

Funding for the leadership institute has been largely overshadowed by money Sansom secured for a different college project: $6 million for an airport building that, according to records and interviews, a developer and Sansom friend planned to use for his corporate jet business.

The airport building remains the most serious problem for Sansom. He, Richburg and developer Jay Odom have been indicted for their roles in getting the money, and are tentatively set to go to trial in late September.

But funding for the leadership institute raises the same central questions about a secretive appropriations process that gives top officials like Sansom the authority to spend public money with little scrutiny.

Sansom maintains he did nothing wrong in any of his dealings and denies the job was payback for his largesse. His lawyer did not return calls for comment on this story.

A close associate of his, however, thinks the college should return the leadership money, just as it was forced to do with the airport project.

"If I were a member of the board of trustees, I would be proposing a repurposing of those funds," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, where the college is based. "Let's spend it on building schools for all the new kids from military families moving into this area."

Gaetz said he had no idea about the leadership institute until after the money was appropriated and a college employee hired to run the facility sought his advice on how it should work.

"It was a surprise. She asked me what it ought to do," Gaetz said. "I said, 'I don't even know what this institute is.' "

The lawyer hired by the House to investigate Sansom's dealings with the college concluded: "The method he used to create, fund and plan for construction of a facility to house the Leadership Institute at that college, over which he would have continuing supervisory control and oversight could reasonably have caused (the public) to lose faith and confidence in the integrity of the Florida House."

Attorney Steve Kahn also found probable cause that Sansom violated House rules in the funding of the airport building, and by setting up a secretive meeting of the college board of trustees in Tallahassee, about 150 miles away from the campus in Niceville.

The five-member panel of Sanson's peers in the Legislature now has to decide on a range of actions, from clearing Sansom to removing him from office. While the hearings start Tuesday, substantive deliberations could be weeks away. Sansom, 47, has asked for a delay until after his criminal trial, which is focused on the airport building, tentatively scheduled to begin Sept. 29.

• • •

Northwest Florida State College has had a role in community leadership training for years, but the idea of a building apparently did not come up until summer 2007, according to records.

By the time the formal proposal was sent to Sansom, the plan called for adding a third floor to an existing student services building the college was seeking funding to renovate.

"This looks great!! Next step?" Sansom responded to Richburg's plan in August. Richburg quickly replied, "We can make this work if you can get it funded."

In December 2007, Richburg met with Sansom and they agreed on a funding plan, according to documents obtained through a public records request. The memo shows Sansom instructed others to get $750,000 in operational money, then add $7.5 million to the student services renovation for the leadership facility.

Sansom gave the memo to his top budget staffer, Mike Hansen, with the instructions to "put this in the budget," according to Kahn's investigative report. A staff member scrawled "1+" on the memo, code for the highest priority of a top lawmaker.

• • •

Then the real behind-the-scenes work began.

Documents show that Sansom got staff to include the $750,000 (later reduced to $720,000 because of budget cuts) into the broad Community College Program Fund, which Kahn concluded "removed the item from visibility."

The Sansom-Richburg memo acknowledges that the $7.5 million was not on the Department of Education's list of projects but that was no problem. Sansom only had to roll it into a project that was on the list — the student services building renovation. The renovation was not supposed to get any funding in the 2008-09 budget and only $785,000 in the following year, with the balance coming later.

But when it appeared there would be more tax receipts for college construction, a lobbyist got a budget staffer to add $1 million. The staffer asked how much it would cost, but the lobbyist declined to say "unless the speaker-designate agreed," according to an e-mail. The speaker designate was Ray Sansom.

As the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau previously reported, the statewide construction budget turned out to be less than thought. That extra money the lobbyist saw did not materialize. Dozens of projects were trimmed as a result.

Not Sansom's. In the final days of the budget negotiations, he got his Senate counterpart, appropriations chairwoman Sen. Lisa Carlton of Osprey, to agree to the funding.

But instead of $1 million, the college was to get $25.5 million, which covered the student services renovation and the new third floor leadership institute.

And thanks to Sansom, there was no waiting. The money was appropriated in one year.

Despite the controversy, Northwest Florida State College maintains the project is a valuable one for the community. Construction is supposed to begin in spring 2010 and take two years.

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

Hangar isn't former state House Speaker Ray Sansom's only problem 08/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 4, 2009 4:16pm]

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