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Other House speakers brought home bacon, but Sansom brought trouble

TALLAHASSEE

Look around, and you find elaborate monuments to former House speakers, all courtesy of Florida taxpayers.

It's a story as old as the Legislature itself. Power provides the elbow grease to bring big bucks home.

Vital medical research takes place at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, named after the House speaker who created it.

The arena in Tallahassee where the Florida State Seminoles play basketball is called the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, after the House speaker who created it.

Ralph Haben Boulevard leads to a former speaker's taxpayer-funded civic center in Palmetto.

A building at FSU is named after former House Speaker John Thrasher, a 'Nole who led passage of legislation establishing the medical school there.

No monument, however, will ever honor Ray Sansom, the former House speaker from Destin scheduled to stand trial by his colleagues next week for alleged ethics violations.

It is the first time in the state's history that a former presiding officer, still a sitting member of the Legislature, has faced such a humiliating spectacle.

Throughout the 15-month-long Sansom ordeal, there has been a feeling in some quarters that he's being pilloried unfairly and that his actions as House budget chairman to benefit a local college were no different than his predecessors' love of pork-barrel projects.

But Sansom's situation is very different, for at least three reasons:

The secrecy. Sansom steered $35 million in new or accelerated money to Northwest Florida State College largely by stealth maneuvers. Because some of the projects were never vetted publicly, Sansom's motives were considered suspect when the scandal broke in the fall of 2008. Then he built a wall of silence and refused to explain his actions for months.

The hangar. Sansom steered $6 million to the college for an emergency operations and training center that included a 15,000-square-foot, heavily camouflaged airplane hangar for use by Jay Odom, a Destin developer and Sansom benefactor who owns a jet business. Sansom has flown on Odom's jets and leases his legislative office from Odom.

The job. After all those millions were on their way to the college in Niceville, Sansom got an unadvertised $110,000, part-time job, of which House independent counsel Melanie Hines says in her 30-page charging document: "The manner in which the job was offered and accepted by Sansom has the appearance of a quid pro quo for his activities as chair of the House Policy & Budget Council."

In a case of unbelievably bad timing that is destined to live on in Florida political lore, the college announced Sansom's hiring as a vice president on the same day he became speaker of the House — a quid pro whoa! that set in motion a series of Times/Herald articles that led to Sansom's downfall as speaker.

Sansom, who's also awaiting trial on a criminal theft charge, has already paid a very high price for his actions, and he likely will be sanctioned by his colleagues after next week's hearing.

It's also a safe bet that there will never be a building in Florida named after him.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Other House speakers brought home bacon, but Sansom brought trouble 02/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2010 10:02pm]

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