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Previous deals cloud new House speaker

TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Ray Sansom appointed key policy leaders for the 2009 Legislature on Tuesday, but the news remained in the shadow of a controversy that has been the talk of the Capitol for weeks.

An outcry is growing over revelations that Sansom steered millions of tax dollars to a small college that quietly hired him as a highly paid, part-time administrator on the same day he took over as House speaker.

Sansom's troubles have even some Republicans grumbling about a lack of judgment that has stained the entire Legislature. But in a stark reminder of how powerful the House speaker position is, few elected officials talked openly.

"The connections are just a little too close," Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, said of Sansom and Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg.

But voters are having no trouble expressing themselves candidly, in phone calls and letters to lawmakers.

So incensed was Charles Luthin of Tampa that he called Richburg to complain, then sent a letter to him and other college officials demanding action.

"Your decision to hire Rep. Sansom and his decision to take the job not only appears wrong, IT IS WRONG," Luthin wrote. "Give him a plaque or host a thank you dinner, but do not hire him."

On Nov. 18, the college hired Sansom, R-Destin, into an unadvertised $110,000 per year vice president's job. The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau reported that in recent years, as Sansom preached the need for fiscal restraint, he directed more than $25-million to the school, which is in Niceville.

On Sunday, the Times/Herald reported that Sansom quietly inserted $6-million into the 2007-08 budget for an airport building that is virtually identical to a project that was championed by Jay Odom, a major Republican donor and friend of Sansom's.

Odom had gained the endorsement of Destin city officials in 2007 to seek state money to build an emergency operations center where he could store larger planes from his new jet business in peaceful times.

Odom's project never was built, but that spring, Sansom got money for Northwest Florida State College to construct an airport building to train emergency workers.

Odom denies that he intended to use the college building to house his jets, but an Odom employee said that was the plan. And architectural drawings for the building, which looks like a hangar, refer to "aircraft related occupancies."

The head of the Florida Democratic Party demanded a criminal investigation into ties between Sansom and Odom.

"With these revelations, Gov. Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum should immediately order the appropriate law enforcement agencies to investigate this matter to clear the ethics cloud around Sansom caused by the appearance of quid-pro-quo corruption," Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman said in a statement.

But the officials, both Republicans, were dismissive. McCollum said he did not have jurisdiction. Crist asked who had filed the complaint, and when he was told it was Thurman, he replied, "Yeah, next question."

The Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau previously reported that Sansom used his powerful position as chief budget writer in the House to direct tens of millions in extra funding to the college, including $24.5-million this year that had been appropriated for a student services building. The college was supposed to get only $1-million this year, according to records.

Crist said Tuesday that he had no recollection of the project, but he said he wasn't doing vetoes last year.

"I don't think I vetoed anything last year, and I vetoed a lot the year before," he said in an interview. "Philosophically, my thought process on not vetoing last year, generally speaking, was that I wanted member projects to go to provide more jobs."

Sansom was not available for comments Tuesday, according to his spokeswoman, Jill Chamberlin. Northwest Florida State College did not respond to repeated requests for comments.

Staff writers Jennifer Liberto and Steve Bousquet contributed to this story. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

Previous deals cloud new House speaker 12/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 1:52pm]
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