Florida House speaker to leave college job

Published: Monday, January 5, 2009 at 7:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 5, 2009 at 7:10 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom announced Monday he will give up the $110,000 Northwest Florida State College job he took the day he was sworn in as speaker.

Critics have questioned whether the job as the college's chief fundraiser was a reward for putting $25.5 million for the school into the state budget last year, when Sansom served as head of the House Budget and Policy Council. Sansom was making $25,000 more than his predecessor and the college didn't advertise the job.

But Sansom defended himself even as he stepped down from the college job.

"I accepted my position at the college with pure intentions and for good reasons. I have long had a passion for education, and I have spent decades working to expand the opportunities available to the people of northwest Florida," Sansom told House members as a special session to cut the budget began.

Sansom graduated from Northwest Florida State and told members that he had hoped to work there long after his legislative service ended.

"Unfortunately, some have disagreed with my decision to work at the college. While I do not question their motives, I strongly object to their conclusions. In all my years in public service, I have sought to act in a manner worthy of the trust that the people have placed in me," Sansom said.

Sansom said he didn't want the job to be a distraction to House business. House members stood and applauded after his remarks.

Newspaper editorials, the Florida Democratic Party and others have suggested Sansom should resign the college position or his role as speaker. Sansom hired a lawyer after an ethics complaint was filed against him last month.

Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman said the resignation was a good first step, but Sansom should still have to answer questions about how and way he steered money to the university, including $6 million for an airport building the school plans to construct that's similar to one a political contributor proposed.

"It is clear that Sansom does not have the credibility to lead our state through these tough times. Therefore Sansom should step down from his role as speaker so the Legislature can move beyond Sansom's ethical problems and get to work fixing Florida's economy," Thurman said.

Rep. Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican in line to be the next House speaker, said the resignation "does away with any concerns people had."

"It was a very statesmanlike thing to do, to say 'Look, I don't want anything to be a distraction,'" Cannon said. "I'm proud of what he did."

House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands of Weston said Sansom may still have to answer questions related to the ethics complaint, but said "It's not my place to make that judgment call."

"If it eases a lot of the distraction and it allows us to get on with the serious business at hand, that's a good thing," Sands said.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said he supports Sansom's decision but the questions about Sansom's job had not been a distraction.

The college said Sansom will step down Jan. 31.

"He will leave the college with our full confidence, admiration, and support," said James Richburg, the college's president.

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