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U.S. Senate hopeful Marco Rubio defends his record in Sansom controversy

Marco Rubio is running for U.S. Senate with a potentially serious blemish on his public record: His hand-picked budget chief was indicted for official misconduct during Rubio's tenure as Florida House Speaker.

There's no evidence Rubio knew that Ray Sansom had budgeted $6 million for a donors' aircraft hangar in the guise of funding a college educational facility, as alleged in the indictment. That budget item apparently raised no red flags with the speaker, and his rival for the Republican Senate nomination, Gov. Charlie Crist, declined to veto that appropriation despite it being flagged as a "turkey" by Florida TaxWatch.

But that's not stopping the Florida Democratic Party from dubbing the Miami Republican "the Godfather of Tallahassee's Republican culture of corruption," and his association with Sansom is prime fodder for a campaign attack.

"As speaker, if anyone wants to put responsibility for anything on you, you have to accept that. But I would just say the Legislature is not run by a single person," Rubio told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday. "We delegated a lot of responsibility, and I think that's how you run an organization, and unfortunately in this case it led to some unfortunate decisions that were made."

In his most extensive interview on the Sansom controversy to date, Rubio implied that some senior House staffers could have helped thwart the misuse of state money but that ultimately there was almost no way for even a House speaker to spot bogus budget allocations inserted by an appropriations chairman.

"The nature of the problem here was not that we didn't know a certain project was in the budget; the nature of the problem was that it was called one thing and really was something else," he said. "There was no way to know that, unless at the staff level or some other level, someone is informing you of it."

At the heart of the indictment is the charge that Sansom sneaked $6 million into the budget for an aircraft hangar to be used by developer and top Republican fundraiser Jay Odom. It was budgeted as an emergency operations training center and would also have housed some classrooms for Northwest Florida State College, whose president, Bob Richburg, was indicted for misconduct along with Odom and Sansom.

"To the extent that anybody knew what those items were and didn't inform the speaker's office or others about it, obviously that's unfortunate because a lot of this could have been avoided," Rubio said.

Top budget aide Mike Hansen was subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury in April, but his testimony is not yet public. Rubio said he had talked to Hansen about a different Sansom appropriation that caught him by surprise — $7.5 million for a "leadership institute" at the college — but he never talked to Sansom about questionable projects.

Rubio said the Sansom case suggests the Legislature's budget process should be reformed, but he was hard-pressed to say how, beyond making public budgetary "working papers" currently not available for public scrutiny.

The former House speaker said he has met Odom several times and knew him as a GOP donor, but they were not close. Rubio at one point during his tenure as speaker declined to reappoint Odom to the board of the Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

The Sansom controversy steadily escalated starting in November, when he took a $110,000 job at Northwest Florida State College on the same day he succeeded Rubio as speaker. In January, Rubio defended Sansom as "one of the best people I ever interacted with in the legislative process," and dismissed the suggestion he should resign as House Speaker, which Sansom did days later.

"A lot's changed," Rubio said of his January comments.

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

U.S. Senate hopeful Marco Rubio defends his record in Sansom controversy 06/02/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 9:29am]
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