March 19, 2018

Florida Trend's Floridian of the Year

Fla. Newsmakers of 2009

People who made an impact in business, economy, science, environment, government, education, sports, philanthropy, media and our fallen soldiers.

» Ray Sansom

Ray Sansom
On the same day Sansom became House Speaker, he accepted a $110,000 job at Northwest Florida State College. [Photo: AP]

Ray Sansom is scheduled to go to trial this year on charges stemming from his role in funneling $35 million in taxpayer money to Northwest Florida State College. Some $6 million was earmarked for a building that appears to have been aimed at benefiting developer Jay Odom, a friend and supporter of Sansom, rather than the school.

Ironically, that $6 million might not have even generated concern in a less-lean budgetary year. But regardless of the outcome of the trial, the revelations about Sansom's conduct that poured out in a stream during 2009 crystallized a disconnect between the way some elected representatives see their duties and the way they're viewed by the public. Also revealed was that Sansom and the school's president, Bob Richburg, arranged a meeting of the college's board of trustees 150 miles off campus to talk about legislation that ultimately gave the school and other community colleges the right to offer four-year degrees.

It's fair to say that Sansom and many legislators see what he did as business as usual. Reports of Sansom's defense strategy indicate his attorneys will argue that no wrongdoing occurred because the Legislature functioned the way it always functioned — that any irregularities in Sansom's handling of appropriations for the school ceased being irregular when the Legislature voted to approve them.

Contrast that view with the language the grand jury used when it indicted Sansom. The Speaker, it said, "because of his friendship and political contributions, violated the trust that the citizens of Florida should expect from its elected representatives."

Meanwhile, the case highlighted the absence of a reliable, planned approach to funding higher education. In the current environment, both college presidents and legislators understand that one route to better funding for their institutions can come via a legislator's ascension to a leadership position — creating plenty of incentives to jockey for position and operate at the ethical margins. — Mark Howard

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