Fla. House speaker quits over college job scandal
By Bill Kaczor
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Trouble started for one of Florida’s most powerful state officials the day he took his post. Now, just over two months into his tenure, GOP Speaker Ray Sansom has stepped down.
Sansom on Monday gave up his position as Republican leader, which entitles him to serve as speaker, while the House GOP was meeting to consider his ouster. The meeting was called amid investigations into whether he’d improperly accepted a job from a state college.
Sansom insists he did no wrong in accepting an unadvertised $110,000 job from Northwest Florida State College after he funneled $35 million to the school over the last two years. But by the end of last week, he had conceded the investigations would distract him from carrying out his duties as speaker and he agreed to step aside — but not down.
On Monday night, Sansom went a step further, becoming the first Florida speaker to resign under fire. He’ll keep the title of speaker, though, until a formal vote can be taken on his replacement when lawmakers meet in regular session next month.
"I took a job," Sansom said before Monday’s announcement. "Every speaker I know has had a job."
House speaker is one of the most powerful positions in the government of the nation’s fourth-largest state, largely because of its ability to appoint committees including chairmen and control the flow of legislation
Speaker also is a short-term job at best. By a rarely broken tradition, speakers serve just two years.
On Friday, Sansom had said that instead of resigning, he would temporarily turn his duties over to his second-in-command, Speaker Pro Tempore Larry Cretul, a little-known, low-key Republican real estate broker from Ocala. Sansom indicated he would take back the speaker’s gavel when the investigations and any resulting legal proceedings were over.
But that idea drew opposition, leading to Monday night’s meeting to consider a replacement for Sansom.
Cretul won the leader’s title by a unanimous vote. That assures he’ll be elected speaker when the full House, which has a 76-44 GOP majority, votes March 3, the first day of the regular legislative session. Cretul will be de facto speaker in the interim.
Sansom’s troubles began on Nov. 18, the day the 46-year-old lawmaker from Destin, a resort town in the Florida Panhandle, was formally elected speaker.
Northwest Florida State hired Sansom the same day to serve as its chief fundraiser at a salary nearly $25,000 higher than his predecessor, who retired.
News reports soon were circulating around Florida that Sansom, the House’s budget chairman for the past two years, had obtained many millions more for building projects at the 15,000-student school than much larger state and community colleges had received at a time when Florida’s budget was shrinking.
Sansom announced Jan. 5, the day lawmakers went into special session to deal with a budget deficit, that he would resign his college job effective at the end of the month.
In late January, a grand jury agreed to look into accusations Sansom had traded the college appropriations for the job. Its investigation is continuing. A House committee and the state Ethics Commission also are looking into the matter.
Sansom hired a pair of lawyers and denied wrongdoing to reporters Jan. 22 at the annual legislative planning session hosted by the Associated Press.