Sansom steps down as House speaker


Published: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 at 10:54 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - In an unprecedented move, House Speaker Ray Sansom stepped down from his position as one of Florida's top political leaders on Friday after months of controversy over his funneling of millions to a college that later hired him.

But instead of calming the issue, Sansom's effort to temporarily leave the Florida House in the hands of his second in command created a storm of confusion with wildly varying opinions about who is leading the 120 lawmakers during one of the state's most perilous economic crises.

The Destin Republican became the first Florida House Speaker in post-Reconstruction history to step down from his post due to legal or ethical scrutiny.

"This is uncharted territory," said Rep. Dave Murzin, R-Pensacola.

Sansom would remain in the House while Ocala Republican Rep. Larry Cretul would handle the speaker's duties. Sansom would also be allowed to resume his role once legal inquiries have been concluded.

But House Republicans were split Friday on whether Sansom could simply take a timeout and dictate that Cretul - who holds the largely ceremonial title of "speaker pro tem" - would keep the podium warm.

Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, unsuccessfully challenged Sansom for the speaker's post. He said Friday that Republicans needed to start fresh with a unified vote on a new House speaker.

"If we do not do that, it's going to be a disaster," Domino said of the confusion among House members. He said the Sansom controversy "calls for a break from that group," adding he would campaign to replace Sansom if House Republicans open up a vote.

Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Orlando, said Cretul is "a very good friend" and that Sansom "will be exonerated." But she said the critical nature of the state's budget crisis required House Republicans to meet and consider who will lead them.

"If we don't, this is always going to be out there and there's always going to be this undertone," she said. "We need to put it to rest."

But other lawmakers said they already chose Cretul as "speaker pro tem" last year, putting him in the job that is technically the second most powerful post in the House.

"The call for a new speaker is politically motivated in itself," Murzin said. "The losers of that race have said, 'OK. Let's re-vote.' We don't need to be shuffling the chairs."

After weeks of pressure from fellow lawmakers, Sansom said in a statement that he had "decided to recuse" himself from his duties as House speaker, adding that, "Ongoing legal proceedings have temporarily created an inability for me to carry out my responsibilities."

Sansom entered his two-year term as House Speaker with a great deal of bipartisan support and a reputation as an amiable leader.

But in November, Northwest Florida State College in Niceville announced Sansom was being hired for a $110,000 position as vice president. It was soon revealed that last year, while he was the House's budget chairman, Sansom pushed to give the school more than $25 million in construction funds.

He also pushed for the school to receive $6 million in education funds to construct an airplane hanger that had been previously requested by a close friend and donor.

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