House Speaker Ray Sansom now faces investigations on multiple fronts for steering millions of dollars to a local college that then hired him for an unadvertised, high-paid administrative job. It is clear he has neither the time nor the credibility to help lead this state through its worst economic crisis in decades. The Destin Republican should resign from the speakership now to allow for an orderly transition of power before the legislative session.
Florida faces incredible challenges. The severe economic recession is creating a state budget shortfall of several billion dollars for 2009-10. State Farm announced on Tuesday it will no longer sell property insurance here, and legislators will have to deal with the fallout. Renewable energy, tax reform and education issues loom large. The House speaker should be in the middle of it all, setting priorities, steering the debate and developing a consensus with the Senate and the governor. Sansom cannot possibly rise to those challenges when he will be so busy defending himself from serious charges.
A grand jury in Tallahassee is launching a criminal investigation into Sansom's funneling of $35 million in extra or accelerated money to Northwest Florida State College during the two years he was the House budget chief. The total includes $6 million for a college building at the Destin airport that is virtually identical to one originally sought by a long time Sansom friend and political contributor, Jay Odom, for his private jet business. The college's lease allows the building to be taken over by Odom if the school later decides it does not want it. How convenient.
On other fronts, the state ethics commission has opened an investigation into Sansom. So has the House in response to a citizen's complaint. To his credit, Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, has recommended a special investigator look into whether Sansom broke House rules rather than a panel of lawmakers whose objectivity could be questioned. Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill McCollum issued an unusually direct letter on Tuesday about a secretive meeting Sansom helped arrange with the college board of trustees in Tallahassee — 150 miles away from its Niceville campus. McCollum correctly labeled the circumstances "very questionable,'' and the grand jury will investigate whether there was a violation of the Sunshine law.
All of these investigations will continue through the legislative session that begins in March. Florida cannot afford to have an incapacitated House speaker consumed with defending himself. It is not fair to Floridians depending on Tallahassee for help, and it is not fair to Sansom's House colleagues looking for guidance.
If Sansom cannot see for himself that he cannot be effective and resign from the speakership, his fellow Republicans should help him see the light. Rep. Dean Cannon of Winter Park is in line to be speaker after Sansom, followed by Rep. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel. If leadership means anything, they should lead Sansom right out the door of the speaker's office.