Former House Speaker Ray Sansom deserves no praise for resigning from office on the eve of his ethics trial. The Destin Republican should have given up his House seat months ago and saved taxpayers more than $230,000 — the state's cost to prepare for the hearings that were scheduled to begin Monday. Now Floridians are out the money and still in the dark about exactly how Sansom was able to use his public office to benefit himself and his political allies. • For months, Sansom's stalling tactics have delayed both the House's investigation and his related criminal trial on felony grand theft charges. Only when his hand was forced by the House's determination to proceed with its hearings did Sansom agree Sunday night to resign. Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, and Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the chairman of the disciplinary panel, correctly concluded the dignity of the institution was more important than protecting a colleague who disgraced it.
The downside of Sansom's resignation is that the complete picture of his self-serving manipulation of the state budget — and who knew about it and looked the other way — may never be known. The criminal case, if it goes to trial, will focus on how Sansom steered $6 million in tax money to Northwest Florida State College for a building that was designed as an airport hangar for friend and political contributor Jay Odom. The House hearings would have gone further and examined the connection between the $35 million in public money Sansom directed to the college and the $110,000-a-year, unadvertised job he later received. The hearings also could have fleshed out Sansom's role in arranging a meeting of the college board of trustees at a private club at Florida State University that violated at least the spirit of public meetings laws.
The sworn testimony from some of the state's expected witnesses would have been particularly enlightening. Former Sen. Lisa Carlton of Osprey, the Senate's chief budget negotiator when Sansom served that role in the House and inserted the money for the airport building, was prepared to testify she did not know the true purpose of the project. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio of Miami, who was House speaker when Sansom was the appropriations chairman, would have had to explain why he did not know or did not stop Sansom from grossly exploiting the budget process. Rubio will avoid the embarrassment of the House hearing, but he cannot avoid questions on the campaign trail about his lack of accountability.
Special House prosecutor Melanie Hines assembled a strong case against Sansom and expected to show he "violated the principles of Legislative ethics: autonomy, accountability and responsibility.'' But just because Sansom resigned does not mean legislators are finished. As Sansom's criminal case winds through the courts, state lawmakers still have a responsibility to re-examine the Legislature's budgeting process and enact reforms. Sansom still should be held accountable in court for his actions, but he exploited a system that is too secretive and too easy to manipulate for personal gain at the public's expense.