MANATEE — Florida House committee members were deciding evidentiary issues for an ethics hearing set for Monday when its subject, former House Speaker Ray Sansom, abruptly resigned his seat Sunday, according to committee chairman Bill Galvano.
Asked if the resignation had surprised him, Galvano replied Monday, “It was not something that was part of any negotiated plan. I just think Sansom, his letter, said he reached a point where under the circumstances, he felt this was the best thing for him to do.
“I heard it when we were in the midst of deciding evidentiary issues,” Galvano said, calling the development “an abrupt end to the committee process.”
Sansom, R-Destin, maintained his innocence, saying in his resignation letter: “I will never relent from that position.”
He insisted he acted properly despite signs that he used his power as House budget writer in 2007 and 2008 to funnel tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to Northwest Florida State College, including $6 million for an airport building that a private developer had wanted to use for his corporate jet business.
The furor set off a debate about whether the budget process is transparent enough.
Asked whether secrecy during passage of the state budget was at fault, Galvano, R-Bradenton, said, “We have recognized we can have more transparency in the process, and have already taken steps over the last year to do so.”
“Over the last year, all meetings during the conference process are public, including meetings on proviso language within the budget,” he said.
“New budget items are discouraged from being introduced at points after the full committees have had an opportunity to review them.”
“I think we’ll continue to watch how we do things, but at the end of the day, it’s a discipline we have to have as members to do everything we can to be open and in the sunshine, and the real success of that depends on us, and not the rules,” Galvano said.
Florida Democratic Party Chair Karen Thurman blasted Republican legislators for “wasteful spending that only benefits Republican leaders in Tallahassee.”
State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, was fielding questions about House Joint Resolution 241, legislation he filed last fall in an effort to expand public access to the budget process and public documents.
The proposed constitutional amendment requires budget documents to be user-friendly and easy to understand. It would forbid last-minute backroom budget and legislative deals that limit public input and scrutiny.
The panel headed by Galvano, the Select Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, adopted a final report and adjourned, Galvano said.
Its three-page report listed the history of the complaint, which was filed last year by Susan T. Smith alleging violation of House rules.
Smith stated that her “respect for the Florida House had been greatly diminished by Speaker Sansom’s actions.”
A special investigator was appointed, along with the select committee, which retained an independent counsel to prepare the case against Sansom.
“Because of the resignation, we will not be making a formal recommendation to the House regarding the alleged rule violation by Rep. Sansom in connection with the leadership institute joint-use facility and relationship with the college,” Galvano said.
— The Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times Tallahassee Bureau contributed.