As the paper trail becomes clearer in the Ray Sansom scandal, the denials by the indicted former House speaker grow more suspect. Thousands of pages of records gathered in his criminal case and by a special investigator for the House shed new light on Sansom's hiring at Northwest Florida State College after he steered millions to the school. They also reaffirm the importance of a strong public records law to get at the facts — particularly when public officials are not forthcoming.
Among the more enlightening public documents:
• A proposal written by Sansom outlines the terms and duties for a $110,000-a-year job that the college gave him in November on the same day he became speaker. That would be the unadvertised job that would include overseeing a college leadership institute. E-mails from 2007 and 2008 budget documents show Sansom arranged to get the institute funded in the state budget as his top priority. There is a strong smell of quid pro quo — and the Destin Republican is not even criminally charged for this one. At least the House special investigator found probable cause that it violates House rules regarding the integrity of the institution.
• A two-line House budget memo vaguely describes the $6 million building to be built at the Destin Airport with public college construction money and used by developer Jay Odom to park his airplanes. It was marked as a top budget request for Sansom, but the project was not in the budgets initially approved by the House and Senate. It magically appeared in the final version of the budget, and the airport location was not mentioned. This is the deal that is at the center of the indictments against Sansom, Odom and former college president Bob Richburg.
• Various e-mails confirm that from before the airport building appeared in the state budget in 2007 until after it was exposed in a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald report in December 2008, the intended use of the building remained the same. The college intended to use state money to build a hangar that could accommodate Odom's private airplanes. The public denials by Sansom and Richburg are at odds with multiple e-mail exchanges.
The House's special investigator, former Senate general counsel Stephen Kahn, performed a valuable public service. He pulled the curtain away from Sansom's efforts to steer money to Northwest Florida State College and then be rewarded with a job. He provided more damning evidence that the state budgeting process is so secretive it invites corruption. And he held Sansom and college officials accountable for orchestrating a meeting of the school's trustees in Tallahassee that was anything but public. Unfortunately, the grand jury let them off the hook on that one.
Not surprisingly, the general reaction in Tallahassee is to circle the wagons. The Legislature has been slow to cough up public records, and the college miraculously found hundreds of e-mails after the first indictments and after Richburg was fired. Former Sen. Lisa Carlton, who negotiated the 2007-08 and 2008-09 budgets with Sansom, refused to talk to Kahn. Even more discouraging, a lawyer for the state Senate issued a gag order preventing current senators or staff members from talking. Perhaps they will find their voices if subpoenaed to testify in the criminal trials.
In the meantime, a strong public records law is prying loose the budget documents, e-mails and other records. Those documents are filling in the blanks of a scandal that looks worse every day.