Former House Speaker Ray Sansom says it was all there for any member of the Legislature to review: millions in taxpayer dollars stuck in the state budget for a Panhandle college.
On Monday, Sansom offered that up as his defense against allegations that he damaged public faith in the House through his dealings with Northwest Florida State College — dealings that were not fully known until a year ago this week when Sansom took a $110,000 job at the school on the same day he was sworn in as speaker.
"Any concerns about or perceived defects in the process or Rep. Sansom's involvement were effectively cured with ratification (of the budget) by a majority vote of both Houses of the Legislature," Sansom's lawyer wrote Monday in a memo to a House panel investigating the Destin Republican.
"Final passage of a budget is the collective work of the legislative body and not that of a single individual."
Sansom has long argued that point, though a grand jury and others have criticized the budget process as a murky art that rewards those in power.
During Sansom's rise, the small college got about $35 million in extra or accelerated funding, including money for a leadership institute and $6 million for a building at Destin Airport that resulted in a grand jury investigation and indictments against Sansom, ex-college president Bob Richburg and developer Jay Odom. Charges against Richburg and Odom were dismissed and part of a charge against Sansom was also tossed, though it is on appeal.
The relationship also spawned the current House investigation in which a special investigator found probable cause Sansom violated rules in his budget dealings as well as in a secretive meeting held with college trustees.
In his filing Monday, Sansom attorney Richard Coates faulted the independent House investigator's finding and said he leapt to conclusions about whether Sansom would have any supervisory control over the leadership institute. Coates said the Legislature signed off on the budget including the $6 million airport building — Odom wanted to store private aircraft inside, according to records — and said Sansom would have no authority to grant a lease to Odom. That could only be done by the college trustees, Coates wrote in the 15-page response.
As for the meeting with the trustees, Coates described Sansom as an "invited guest."
E-mails obtained by the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau showed that Richburg suggested the idea of a meeting in Tallahassee in spring 2008. At the time, he and Sansom were working on legislation that would allow a handful of schools, including Northwest Florida State, to offer an expanded array of bachelor degrees.
"It's probably the only way we can do it in privacy but with a public notice here," Richburg wrote.
Sansom replied, "That would be great!! We can get a private room on the 6th floor at FSU." Records show Sansom booked the room under his name and used his Republican Party-issued American Express card to pay the dinner bill.
Rep. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who chairs the five-member panel hearing the case against Sansom, had not yet read the response Monday evening. Sansom has asked that the investigation be dismissed.
Susan T. Smith, the Tampa-area Democrat who filed the complaint against Sansom, said the defense "sounds laughable."
"The whole system is wrong, and there couldn't be a better example of how it is," she said. "I hope the House committee will try to think of what's best for the state of Florida and the reputation of the Legislature. It's fallen to such a low that they need to keep that in mind. They need to take action."
The House panel can dismiss the case or take action including expelling Sansom from the Legislature. The committee voted earlier this month to reject Sansom's request to delay the hearing until after the criminal case is resolved. It meets again early next month. The week of Jan. 25-29 has been reserved to hear the case.
Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.