Rep. Sansom ‘doesn’t pass smell test’

More than a year before accepting a controversial job with his hometown college, House Speaker Ray Sansom was regularly taking direction from the man who later would become his boss.

Last February, as Sansom warned lawmakers about the difficult budget years ahead, he eagerly tackled a $122.5 million wish list from Northwest Florida State College without so much as a hint to the school that some of it might not get done.

In fact, as the House’s top budget writer, Sansom arranged funding for the first installment of that multi-year list, just as requested: $25.5 million for a student services building. It was the largest single award for a college project in 2008.

In a collection of e-mails reviewed by the Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times Tallahassee Bureau, a portrait emerges of Sansom, a rising power in the state capital, as an eager-to-please subordinate to college president Bob Richburg.

In the e-mails provided in response to a public records request, Richburg’s many requests for assistance are greeted with enthusiasm and optimism.

n “I will get to work on funds.”

n “I will get right on this.”

n “Just give us the word.”

n “This looks great! Next step?”

With two sessions to go before he leaves the Legislature, Sansom’s dealings are coming under scrutiny as he eschews widespread calls to resign the $110,000 per year job — which he got on the same day last month he was sworn in as House speaker.

The 46-year-old Destin Republican denies a connection between the job and the tens of millions he has secured for the school at Richburg’s urging. In the past two years, the small school has gotten $35 million above what had been budgeted by the state Department of Education.

Tom Slade, former head of the Republican Party of Florida, said Sansom’s relationship with the college “doesn’t pass the smell test” and tramples on the principles the GOP stood behind to take control of the Legislature more than a decade ago.

“We were able to say, ‘When we’re in control, you can expect us to be very honorable and very disciplined with spending.’ But when something of this nature rolls along,” Slade said, “it taints the legislative process and it taints the party.”

Sansom defends use of the education money, even during spending cuts, saying it cannot go toward other areas of the budget.

Sansom and Richburg have stopped answering questions about their working relationship, and they didn’t respond to an interview request for this story.

But their e-mails show a high degree of coordination, none perhaps more striking than the $122.5 million Richburg asked Sansom to get for the college.

Just before the 2008 legislative session, Richburg sent Sansom an Excel spreadsheet outlining a five-year construction-funding plan. (The college did not provide the spreadsheet to the Herald/Times until last week and declined to make an electronic copy available, sending only a printed sheet.)

“It is a pricey list,” Richburg conceded. “Hopefully we can make it a reality.”

The maneuver came amid a serious budget crisis facing the state — something even Sansom acknowledged with a grim memo to other lawmakers.

“Unlike recent downturns in the U.S. economy,” he wrote in January, “this time Florida seems to be worse off than the rest of the nation.”

A day after he sent it to House members, Sansom forwarded a copy to Richburg.

“If it is OK, I will start sending you information like this,” he wrote Jan. 10. ‘“Have a great day and look forward to the future.”

Soon after, Richburg sent his expansive wish list.

In addition to the first-year installment toward fulfilling that wish list, state records show the college received $1 million more than initially budgeted for an extension center in Walton County and $105,000 more than initially budgeted for general renovation.

Richburg’s list includes getting $18 million from the 2009 legislative session that starts in March, then $34 million the following year, Sansom’s last in the House. Richburg then wants $22 million and $23 million in the two years that follow that, for a five-year total of $122.5 million.

But Richburg’s ambitions for the college, and Sansom’s help in attaining them, goes beyond money. Determined to create an exclusive tier of state colleges during this year’s spring session, Richburg pressed Sansom to make changes to legislation that permitted some community colleges to offer an expanded array of bachelor degrees. Richburg asked Sansom to limit the plan to only a few community colleges, and he urged him to shield it from opposition.

Richburg suggested Sansom join him for a meeting with the editorial board of a local newspaper to pitch the concept. “Your call if you think we should do this together, but I would love to,” Sansom replied.

The Richburg-Sansom alliance also expanded the college’s reach with creation of a ‘‘leadership institute.” Richburg sent Sansom the proposal, which said:

“The need for leadership development in all sectors of the economy has become so pronounced that (the college) cannot provide for all who request assistance in this critical area without making a substantial investment in expanding its leadership development capabilities.”

The proposal called for creating three new jobs and $193,000 in annual funding.

“This looks great!!” Sansom replied. “Next step?”

“We can make this work if you get it funded,” Richburg shot back.

Richburg then laid out a “special legislative strategy” that involved funding the operating costs in the base budget and getting the construction money for the institute tacked onto a different project.

“I will get to work on funds,” Sansom said.

True to his word, Sansom inserted $750,000 in start-up money into the current budget for the institute. For construction, $7.5 million was part of the $25.5 million that was included for the student services building, according to state records.

Also in 2007, Sansom may have played a role in getting Gov. Charlie Crist to appoint two new members of the college board of trustees. Although the e-mail records provided by the college don’t include a request from Richburg to have Sansom help get Sandy Sims, a spokeswoman for Gulf Power, and Brian Pennington, an official with the Fort Walton-based defense contractor Tybrin Corp., appointed, Richburg seems grateful.

“Sandy Sims and Brian Pennington have been appointed,” Richburg wrote to Sansom in August, “thank you so much.”

In November, the two were on the board of trustees that approved hiring Sansom.