By ALEX LEARY, MARC CAPUTO, SHANNON COLAVECCHIO and STEVE BOUSQUET
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — Ousted House Speaker Ray Sansom racked up about $173,000 on his Republican Party-issued credit card, taking his family on a trip to Europe, making repeated visits to Best Buy and spending thousands on flowers, clothing, meals and hotels.
As a recession tightened on Florida families, Sansom was spending freely, records show, on tuxedo rentals, Chinese food, and a steady flow of coffee — $839 at Starbucks alone.
The American Express Card statements, covering a two-year period, were made public Thursday as part of the criminal case against Sansom, who is accused of official misconduct in securing $6 million in taxpayer money for an airport building that a developer and campaign contributor, Jay Odom, allegedly wanted to use for his private jet business.
Taken together, the credit card charges cast the Destin Republican in starkly different light from the small town politician known for a message of fiscal restraint.
“There are an awful lot of people who are concerned how the party is spending money,” said veteran Tallahassee lobbyist Ken Plante. “I don’t think they’ll be very happy with this. It’s troubling.”
Never before in recent years have such internal financial details been made public, exposing what has long been a source of intense curiosity and friction among top campaign contributors worried their money is being misused.
Under state law, the specifics of party credit-card expenditures are shielded from the public. Only bottom-line amounts are revealed. That makes the detailed Sansom reports all the more eye-catching. He spent $11,475 at Best Buy alone and $8,993 at Friendly Florist in Fort Walton Beach.
Records show that numerous top politicians and officials with the Republican Party of Florida racked up $3.6 million in credit-card charges from January 2007 to June 30, 2009, so Sansom’s expenses might not be that unusual. The Florida Democratic Party, which is often outraised and spent by the Republican Party, doesn’t give credit cards to officials.
The expenses could raise IRS tax issues for Sansom and other state politicians who have used the cards in the past. Republican officials would not say Thursday whether he or his family reimbursed their travel and expenses.
“The Republican Party is a tax-exempt organization so it’s a little gray,” said Mary Anne Reilly, a tax expert who lives in St. Petersburg.
”But I can’t see how you could justify those expenses’’ if they weren’t reimbursed. “It doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Moreover, the lavish spending could hurt the GOP’s effort to raise money from already-cash strapped donors.
Sansom was one of several top elected Republicans to hold a card — which has since been taken away — as he oversaw House election efforts in the two years before he was to be sworn in as speaker in November 2008.
Others include current Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, and future president, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, as does Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer.
House Speaker Larry Cretul, who took over after Sansom was ousted by his GOP colleagues earlier this year, does not have a card, nor does Rep. Dean Cannon, the Winter Park Republican in line to be speaker in 2010.
Some of Sansom’s charges clearly seem related to official business, which would involve travel for fundraisers and to recruit candidates.
And without seeing statements for other card holders, it’s difficult to characterize the level of Sansom’s spending.