Former House Speaker Ray Sansom's counterpart Bob Richburg avoids similar scrutiny

On the morning the news broke, college president Bob Richburg sent a quick e-mail to his new employee, House Speaker Ray Sansom. "Article seemed ok," he wrote.

"It was much better than expected!" Sansom replied. "You did a great job and I am honored to work for you."

The fallout, four months later, is well-known. Sansom reluctantly quit his new $110,000 job at Northwest Florida State College, which the article had reported, and fellow Republicans ejected him as speaker.

As a grand jury today in Tallahassee continues examining Sansom's ties to the school, some wonder why Richburg hasn't endured equal scrutiny.

It was Richburg who urged Sansom to get millions in state construction money for the college. It was Richburg who pushed Sansom to get legislation passed. It was Richburg who suggested a meeting of the board of trustees that has raised the specter of a Sunshine Law violation.

"Why is Ray Sansom the only one being brought on the carpet?" asked Judy Byrne Riley, a former member of the college foundation.

"Ray bears some responsibility," she added. "But the sympathy in the community is with Ray Sansom. I don't hear any sympathy with Bob Richburg."

• • •

Richburg, who turns 64 today, is the son of educators and a former schoolmate of Newt Ging­rich in Columbus, Ga. After attending the University of Georgia, Richburg embarked on a career that took him to colleges across Florida, eventually landing in Niceville, where he has been president since 1987.

In the two decades since, Richburg has left a mixed record. Many say he has expanded educational and financial opportunity in the Panhandle. He has brought to campus a renowned arts center and symphony. He established a nursing program and started a charter high school.

"He's a visionary," said Carl Kuttler, president of St. Petersburg College, who adopted the charter school idea.

"He's interested in making sure things happen right for the community," said Bill Robinson, CEO of the local United Way, who said Richburg took the lead on addressing a homeless problem after Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

But Richburg has plenty of detractors, too, and he has been in the middle of ample controversy.

"I would have told (Sansom) to be very, very careful" about getting involved with Richburg, said state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Nice­ville, who is friends with Sansom and has tussled with Richburg over education issues.

Years ago, Richburg hired another man who would be House speaker, Rep. Bo Johnson, D-Milton. But under fire for drawing two state salaries and for steering state money to the college, Johnson quit the job just as he became speaker.

Richburg's own salary has become a source of questions, as well. He is one of the so-called double dippers, a state employee who "retired" briefly then was rehired to the same job but with a pension. Richburg got a lump sum of $553,228 in 2007 and started collecting a monthly pension of $8,803 in addition to his $228,000 annual salary. Gaetz is sponsoring a bill to end the "double dipping" practice.

Hard feelings still linger from when Richburg sold to developers land given to the college by Mattie Kelly, the matriarch of one of Destin's founding families. A legal battle waged for years before the college prevailed in 2006.

"It was shameful and greedy," said Lowell Kelly, 57, Mrs. Kelly's grandson.

Richburg told the Times/Herald that Mrs. Kelly wanted the college to establish a cultural and environmental institute and the land sale fulfilled that wish.

As the hiring of Bo Johnson seemed to portend future controversy, so did the land sale. The college foundation discussed the deal out of public view. Asked to weigh in, then-Attorney General Charlie Crist said the meetings should be subject to the Sunshine Law.

Seeking Crist's opinion was Rep. Sansom, a rising figure in the Legislature. "I think he and I should take the lead in getting the word out so that there is no uncertainty as to how this applies across the state," Sansom told the Northwest Florida Daily News.

Now Sansom and Richburg face questions over a meeting they set up last year.

"Think about a meeting in Tall. with you, the trustees and me to talk about the proposed college change and the system questions," Richburg wrote Sansom in a Feb. 12 e-mail. "It's probably the only way we can do it in privacy but with a public notice here."

Sansom replied, "That would be great!! We can get a private room on the 6th floor at FSU."

In an interview, Richburg said the meeting met legal requirements, pointing to a notice that appeared in the Daily News.

Investigators are likely to ponder whether a notice in a newspaper 150 miles from Tallahassee provides adequate access. The meeting was held in a building not open to the public, and building managers say they were asked not to put up signs. No members of the public showed up, and Sansom was the only lawmaker invited to what Richburg calls a "legislative briefing."

Sansom and Richburg were growing closer.

A series of e-mails obtained through a public records request show Richburg urged Sansom to pursue legislation creating a new tier of state colleges (it passed) and to secure construction funding. Over a two-year period, Sansom secured about $35 million in extra or accelerated funding.

Richburg said the college has been successful over its history "as a growing and vibrant institution" and has made its priorities known to the Department of Education. Records show that money started to flow much more rapidly as Sansom became the chief budget writer in the House. And Richburg presented him with lofty wish list for millions more this year and next.

One of the most controversial awards — $6 million for an emergency operations center that bears a resemblance to an aircraft hangar sought by developer Jay Odom — was Sansom's idea, Richburg said.

Other college presidents have taken notice of Richburg's success in the budget game, and some openly criticized Richburg during a meeting last summer.

There was widespread speculation that Richburg hired Sansom to be his successor, and Sansom said he looked forward to a long career there.

Richburg recently announced that he was freezing the vacancy, citing a poor budget outlook. Talk is that Sansom, having lost standing in the House, would go back if he emerges unscathed from the investigations. Richburg said he and Sansom have no agreements.

"He resigned from the college in good standing and would be eligible for any position for which he is qualified."

Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.com.

Former House Speaker Ray Sansom's counterpart Bob Richburg avoids similar scrutiny 03/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 12:52pm]

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