The Northwest Florida State College trustees made the right decision this week to fire the college's president and abandon a $6 million project at a local airport. It only took six months of bad press, the resignation of the state House speaker, a grand jury's condemnation, a pair of criminal indictments and a swift kick from the governor. But it's progress. Now the college can continue to repair its reputation by returning the $300,000 in public money wasted so far on a building it did not need.
The trustees on Tuesday hardly made a clean break from a scandal that has stained the college and the entire Legislature. Earlier this month, a grand jury in Tallahassee indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom and college president Bob Richburg, charging they falsified the state budget to direct $6-million in education construction money for a building at Destin Airport. The grand jury concluded the building was really designed as a hangar for the jet business owned by Jay Odom, a developer and prominent GOP campaign contributor. The indictment followed months of reporting by the St. Petersburg Times' Alex Leary that revealed the $6 million project that Sansom quietly placed into the state budget. That was just a portion of $35 million Sansom had directed to the college in the two years before Richburg hired him for an unadvertised, high-paying administrative job. The Times also revealed the trustees held a meeting in Tallahassee in March 2008 that was orchestrated by Richburg and Sansom and skirted the state's open meetings laws.
Despite all that, the trustees acted only reluctantly to make any amends. "The grand jury got it wrong," said trustee Brian Pennington. "Ray Sansom has done nothing different than the prior speakers of the House," board chair Wesley Wilkerson said. One trustee blamed (who else?) the media. Others argued against returning the money already spent on design and site work.
The college trustees have no one to blame but themselves. They failed to hold Richburg accountable. They approved his plan to hire Sansom to the $110,000-a-year college job without considering other applicants. They created an environment that allowed Richburg to conspire with Sansom to get public money for an airport building that was designed to benefit Odom.
Gov. Charlie Crist deserves credit for calling on the college to return the money. Now the school should start fresh with a new president focused on educating students instead of helping political allies.