TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Ray Sansom, dogged for weeks about his taxpayer-funded largesse to a state college that later hired him, insisted Thursday that he would be cleared of wrongdoing.
"I feel confident, very confident, that in the end I will come out of this clean," Sansom, R-Destin, told reporters in what were his most extensive public comments on the controversy. "Innocent."
Today, the Florida Commission on Ethics could consider a complaint that was filed against Sansom, and next week a grand jury will be asked if it wishes to open a formal investigation.
The issue is twofold:
First, late last year, Sansom accepted a high-paying part-time job at Northwest Florida State College, a small school that saw a dramatic spike in funding for capital projects in 2006 and 2007, the two years that Sansom wrote the House budget.
And second, one of the projects Sansom secured is a $6-million airport facility that would serve as a first-responder training center for the school and also a rescue staging center for emergency personnel during natural disasters. Controversy arose over the building when the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported that it is virtually identical to a hurricane-proof hangar that a longtime Sansom friend had hoped to build on the very same spot to house his jets.
In an interview on Thursday, Sansom insisted that the college building is not related in any way to the hangar that developer Jay Odom had sought but was unable to get state funding for.
Sansom said that in 2007 lawmakers were eager to spend capital money to boost the economy so he proposed to college president Bob Richburg a dual-use building in which first-responders would be trained year-round but would vacate in times of emergency.
Sansom said he didn't know that Odom had proposed the same dual-use facility, with the same $6-million price tag, about the same time and wasn't involved when the college chose Odom's site as the location to build its emergency training center.
"I never followed it that closely," he said of Odom's proposal, which was endorsed by the city of Destin. "It wasn't like consciously on my mind."
The proof that the two projects don't overlap, Sansom said, is the action taken by the college board of trustees, which met Tuesday night. The group approved a lease from Odom for the land to construct the building that includes a provision that forbids its use by any private entity. The lease states that nothing shall be taken as a partnership between the college and Odom's Destin Jet operation next door.
But the lease also carries a provision allowing Odom the right to take over the college interest should the school no longer want to offer classes there.
"I can assure you," Sansom said, "after 20 years (in public service), I've never used my position for me to gain at all."
The college also flatly disputes that the projects are related, though the college is using the same development authorization Odom got from the city of Destin back when he was hoping to get the building himself. The engineering firm that worked for Odom now is a consultant for the college.
"We're considering that a hangar," Tim Martin of Connelly & Wicker, the engineering firm, said in a recent interview.
Sansom's ordeal began two months ago when he accepted an unadvertised $110,000 job at his hometown college — on the same day he was sworn in as speaker.
A series of reports by the Times/Herald have shown that over the previous two years, when Sansom was in charge of the House budget, the college received about $35-million in extra or accelerated funding and that Sansom worked closely behind the scenes on legislation with Richburg.
Both Sansom and Richburg have denied the vice president position was a reward for the favorable treatment, and Sansom, who announced a few weeks ago that he is resigning the job Jan. 31, stressed again Thursday that money was available for the project.
Even so, the airport funding was not filed through the normal channels, with a request to the Department of Education. Rather, it was inserted during the budget process.
Sansom, 46, has not granted interviews to the entire capital press corps since Nov. 5, a day after the election. He said Thursday that he decided to break his silence to explain himself as the controversy has spawned two ethics complaints, a Sunshine Law violation inquiry by the state attorney and a possible grand jury investigation.
Against all that, Sansom said he is confident he will be cleared and is eager to get on with his legislative duties.
"I've moved on. We've got a tough two years ahead," he said during the Associated Press' annual planning day in Tallahassee.
Sansom said he was surprised by the storm of controversy that erupted, but he remains pleased with the funding work he did on behalf of the school.
In particular, he said he's proud of the college's airport building, which he said is part of a statewide effort to mesh emergency operations facilities with educational ones.
"If I would have had a campaign in 2008 for re-election, this would have been what I campaigned on," he said. "I'm proud of what we did. I think it's a model for the state and maybe the country. I'm very proud of all this. I gain nothing. Jay Odom gains nothing. … But the people gain everything."
Staff writer Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.