A decade after scandal, Ray Sansom plots comeback

Former House speaker says he may run for county school superintendent.
Former House Speaker Ray Sansom [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Former House Speaker Ray Sansom [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 15, 2018|Updated May 15, 2018

It has been nearly a decade since former Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom of Destin resigned amid allegations that he misused his office to steer tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money to a friend and a local college.

Sansom, 55, relinquished his power as speaker, a step believed to be without precedent in state history. He stepped down in 2009 and returned to the Panhandle after a scandal that derailed the House for two years.

A series of reports by the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau led to a corruption inquiry and grand jury probe of Sansom, a Republican from Destin whose downfall began as the House's chief budget-writer during Marco Rubio's term as House speaker.

Now the only legislative leader in modern times to resign from office is planning a possible comeback thanks to an antiquated system in which most county school superintendents in Florida are chosen by voters.

Sansom confirmed he may run for Okaloosa County school superintendent in 2020. He said he will make a decision several months from now.

"A lot of friends have asked me to consider it," Sansom said. "As it gets closer, I might think more seriously about it … We'll see when the time comes." He said he'll make a decision in the next six months.

Sansom faced grand theft and conspiracy charges for his role in securing $6 million in the 2007 state budget for an airport hangar for Destin developer Jay Odom, a personal friend and campaign contributor.

That was part of about $35 million in extra or accelerated funding that the Legislature sent to Northwest Florida State College during Sansom's two-year reign as budget chief. Sansom later took an unadvertised $110,000-a-year job at the college.

Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs dropped criminal charges against Sansom in 2011 after a judge blocked the testimony of a key witness, and Sansom later recovered about $600,000 in legal fees from the state.

"I was cleared," Sansom said in an interview. "It was proven in court and my legal fees were reimbursed."

Sansom works for The Rader Group, a charter school operator, and said he oversees five dropout prevention schools in three counties.

Florida and Alabama are the only states with elected superintendents. In Florida, they are elected in about two-thirds of 67 counties, most of them small and rural.

A former Okaloosa superintendent said Sansom's road back to public office won't be easy.

"It's a risky endeavor," said Don Gaetz, a former legislator and president of the Florida Senate from 2014-2016. "It would be an extraordinarily difficult campaign for Ray and his family. The problems and the conduct that ended Ray's political career would resurface in a campaign."

The Okaloosa district is embroiled in a grand jury investigation of its own.

Four school district employees have been charged in a case involving the alleged physical abuse of a special needs elementary student.

The charges include child abuse and failure to report suspected child abuse in a case in which a student was sprayed in the face with a liquid and kicked, according to news reports. Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson is up for re-election in 2020.

Sansom, a Fort Walton Beach native, ran for office eight times but often had no opposition in races for the House and county commissioner. The last time his name appeared on a ballot was in 2002.