TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Ray Sansom relinquished his leadership position Friday in an unprecedented retreat from power that was choreographed to instill calm but gave way to confusion.
Using an obscure House rule, the embattled speaker announced he would temporarily "recuse" himself from the authority of his office and install a little-known legislator from Ocala to take over as acting speaker.
But Sansom's move, made only reluctantly on the urgent advice of colleagues, failed to quell anxiety in a chamber that has seen its own standing damaged amid allegations that Sansom abused his office to help friends and himself.
Sansom, 46, denies doing so and insists he will be cleared.
It was not clear Friday how long new Speaker Larry Cretul, 61, is expected to remain in power and some members openly questioned whether Sansom's half-measure departure, designed to allow for his return, was even permissible. Talk around the Capitol was about whether Sansom should fully resign the speakership and allow Republicans to hold a new election to replace him.
"This is a mess," said Rep. Baxter Troutman, R-Winter Haven. "There's no page in the playbook that gives clear instructions on what to do and how to do it."
Sansom, R-Destin, will retain his House seat as he faces investigations from a grand jury, a special House investigator and the Florida Commission on Ethics over his accepting an unadvertised job at his hometown college on the same day he became one of the three most powerful politicians in Florida.
The investigations were triggered by a series of stories by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau that detailed how, in the two years before becoming speaker, Sansom helped the college get about $35 million in accelerated or extra money, including $6 million for an airport project that's similar to a jet hangar a Sansom friend was trying to build.
The newspaper revelations about the funding and Sansom's close ties to the president of Northwest Florida State College mounted over the holidays. Legislators were reticent to criticize Sansom, even as they whispered among themselves about the perception his dealings had created.
The breaking point appeared to be Monday's commencement of a grand jury investigation — an ordeal that could take months and extend well beyond the legislative session that begins March 3. Several top legislative leaders talked with Sansom and urged him to step aside.
"Effective immediately, I have decided to recuse myself from the exercise of my duties as Speaker of the House of Representatives," Sansom said in a statement released at 12:59 p.m. that will forever link him as the first House speaker in Florida ever to step aside amid a cloud of investigations.
"The allegations and reports associated with these proceedings have caused my family grave pain and this has prompted my decision. I expect positive outcomes and am confident that when the facts are known, my honesty and integrity will be confirmed."
The new speaker, Cretul, is a soft-spoken real estate agent and Vietnam War veteran. He is well respected, but is not known to be especially ambitious and is not said to be eying a permanent leadership post. Cretul has shared a condo with Sansom in Tallahassee.
The House updated its Web site Friday afternoon to highlight an archive photo of Cretul standing at the podium.
Sansom appears to have used House Rule 2.5, "Appointment of a Temporary Presiding Officer," in naming Cretul acting speaker "in the event of the Speaker's death, illness, removal or inability to act, until the Speaker's successor is elected."
That did little to settle nerves.
"It would make a lot of the members feel a little bit more comfortable if they had the ability to conference," said Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Oviedo. "Don't get me wrong. Larry Cretul is a good man. I trust him. But I still believe there's a need for a conference.
"This has all just come out," Adams said. "People are looking at the (House) rules and saying, 'Where does this put us?' "
In response to questions, Cretul sent a memo to members late Friday meant to encourage them that the issue had been properly handled. In the note, he copied a memo from House General Counsel Karen Camechis, who said Cretul had been properly vested with the powers of the speaker's office.
On Nov. 18, Sansom was sworn in to a two-year term as House speaker, his beaming wife and three daughters at his side.
Hours later, the board of trustees at Northwest Florida State College agreed to hire Sansom to a part-time administration job that paid $110,000 a year. The position hadn't been advertised, there were no other applicants and Sansom faxed his application from his suite of offices in the state Capitol.
Soon after news crept out about the job, details began to emerge about a small college that had done unusually well in the annual budget roulette of Tallahassee. Sansom was the House's top budget writer during those years.
In 2008, Sansom accelerated funding for a student services building, taking what had been a $1 million appropriation and turning it into $25.5 million — the largest single appropriation for any college in the state.
Sansom defended the spending, saying it was all money designated for education use so it couldn't have been used to patch other holes in the budget. He said that at the time, lawmakers were trying to push construction projects through quickly to generate jobs as the economy was beginning to soften.
The total to Northwest Florida over 2007 and 2008 included millions for projects that had not been part of the college's initial request for public education construction outlay (PECO) funds. Among those projects was $6 million for a first-responder training center for the school that would double as a staging area for emergency officials during natural disasters.
That project raises the most serious questions because it's so similar to one that had been proposed by a developer and major GOP donor, Jay Odom. A longtime Sansom friend, Odom sought $6 million in state money to build a hurricane-proof hangar that he would use as a maintenance facility for his jet business but then turn it over to emergency officials as a staging area during natural disasters.
Odom didn't get the money, but soon after Sansom secured money for the college to construct a similarly sized building on the same plot of land where Odom had sited his hangar. College documents refer to the building as a "hangar," but college officials insist it's not the same building Odom was trying to build and they were never planning to let him use it.
Sansom has denied any wrongdoing. He says he didn't know about Odom's project and wasn't involved in the deal when the college decided to lease land from Odom to locate its training center.
As the controversy unfolded, Sansom was slow to respond. He offered early denials, and said that in a "citizens' legislature" he had a right to hold another job. But then he retreated from public view for weeks. Under pressure, he resigned the college position in early January, effective today.
But while Sansom has defenders, some of his closest friends have told him that taking the college job was a mistake to begin with.
"We're certainly praying for him and his family and hope that as he goes through this process, all the allegations are ill-founded," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who is in line to become speaker in 2012.
"But we're also confident Larry Cretul has the ability to lead the chamber. We are laser focused on the regular session approaching and the challenges we face making sure the citizens of Florida are represented."
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Jennifer Liberto and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.