House Speaker Ray Sansom reluctantly resigned a six-figure job at his hometown college Monday, succumbing to intense public criticism and questions about tens of millions in tax dollars he steered to the school.
"I accepted my position at the college with pure intentions and for good reasons," the Destin Republican said at the start of a special session to cut more than $2-billion from the current state budget — a backdrop that only amplified questions about the $110,000-a-year position.
"Unfortunately, some have disagreed with my decision," Sansom said. "While I do not question their motives, I strongly object to their conclusions."
Sansom has been engulfed in controversy over the job, which he took in November on the day that he was sworn in as House speaker, nearly from the beginning. A series of stories by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau detailed Sansom's record of lavishing the college with construction project money in recent years, leading some to wonder if the high-paying job was a reward for his taxpayer-funded generosity.
Constituents wrote to their Tallahassee representatives to urge Sansom to resign the job, and one Clearwater man filed a formal ethics complaint.
Sansom will leave the job as vice president for development at Northwest Florida State College on Jan. 31, a job he started on Dec. 1. For his two months, Sansom will be paid about $18,300.
He delivered the news Monday in a quick and somber speech and immediately pledged to get to work on the state budget. Fellow lawmakers, who had been reticent to criticize the newly installed speaker of the House, even as their own supporters back home complained, seemed relieved Monday.
"Given the feelings in the public, it was appropriate," said Rep. Faye Culp, R-Tampa.
"It was an appropriate first step," agreed Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota. But "it's too late for this to be swept away by a simple move like that."
Little was known Monday how Sansom reached his decision to resign or what he might do for work. Before his new job, he was earning about $83,000 as an economic development representative for Alabama Electric Cooperative. As House speaker, he's paid about $42,000. He and his wife, Tricia, have three daughters.
"I think he's said all he's going to say," spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin said.
While Sansom, 46, sought to put an end to the issue, hard questions remain about his dealings in the two years leading up to his taking the job, which was not advertised.
Chief among them is $6-million he inserted into the 2007 budget for what the college is calling an emergency training and operations center at Destin Airport. Before the school got the project money, Sansom's friend, panhandle developer and major GOP donor Jay Odom, had tried and failed to get state money for an airport hangar on the same site. Odom wanted taxpayer money to build a hurricane-proof aircraft hangar to store jets for his flight business and that local officials could use in a storm.
Sansom and the college deny any connection between the two buildings, though a review of public records by the Times/Herald showed the projects are virtually the same.
The Times/Herald also documented how over the past two years, as Sansom was in charge of the House budget, he secured about $35-million in extra or accelerated funding for Northwest Florida State College. As he did this, Sansom was preaching fiscal restraint and urged lawmakers to ease off on local budget requests.
As the news unfolded, public outcry grew. Most newspaper editorial boards across the state, including those in Sansom's district, called for him to step down from the job or leave the Legislature. The Florida Democratic Party called for a federal investigation. Citizens wrote their lawmakers letters of outrage, showing how Sansom's actions were tainting the Legislature as a whole.
Then, on Dec. 8, Clearwater resident David Plyer filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics, alleging that Sansom broke a state law that prohibits public officials from using their position to gain special privilege for themselves or others.
Sansom, who has hired a lawyer, had previously defended the millions he secured for the college, noting it came from an account that can only be used for education construction.
But as the powerful budget chairman, he was able to secure the money in a time when tax receipts were beginning to dry up. Though Northwest Florida State College has asked for $13.2-million in construction money in the upcoming fiscal year, the Department of Education is recommending only $748,000 due to bleak revenue projections.
Plyer said Monday he hopes the commission will not drop the matter.
"That the press lifted the rock and shined a light that made Sansom squirm is all the more reason for the Ethics Commission to investigate."
Bob Richburg, the college president, issued a statement saying he accepted the resignation with regret. "He will leave the college with our full confidence, admiration, and support." The college did not respond to questions Monday, including why Sansom's resignation was effective Jan. 31.
One of Sansom's closest allies, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Sansom handled the resignation with class.
"The speaker did the right thing," Gaetz said. "He did the right thing for his community, for Northwest Florida. And he did the right thing for the House of Representatives."
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Marc Caputo, Mary Ellen Klas and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.