This story is starting to have a familiar ring to it: A Florida senator secures funding for a local college in his district, and then finds himself a job there. Such is the case with House Speaker Ray Sansom, a Republican from Destin, Fla., who has come under fire for taking a high-paying position at Northwest Florida State College. As a number of news organizations have pointed out, Sansom helped the college land millions of dollars for construction projects before the offer was made, suggesting to critics a potential conflict of interest.
Other similar stories have caused controversy in Florida, but it’s unfair to disqualify lawmakers from jobs in higher education, argues Bob Richburg, the college’s president. The Legislature is home to real estate agents, teachers and doctors, all of whom have potential professional interests in specific appropriations or changes in state law, he said.
“Where do you stop?” Richburg said. “I don’t believe because you work for a state college or a community college that you should be excluded from being elected to serve in the Legislature.”
Sansom was hired by the college in November as vice president for development and planning, a newly created position that was not publicly advertised. The job, which pays $110,000 a year, is part time.
“We don’t advertise part-time positions,” Richburg said by way of explanation.
“We’re doing it on a part-time basis because of the flexibility that Mr. Sansom needs,” he added.
A similar rationale was given by the University of Florida when it hired state Sen. Mike Haridopolos for a lecturer position in political science that wouldn’t require him to be on campus during legislative sessions. Haridopolos, a rising star in the state Republican Party, did not have a doctorate and made $75,000 a year, $5,000 more than his predecessor, who had a Ph.D. and a higher-ranking title.
Other lawmakers have also found positions in the state’s higher education system, including Sen. Evelyn Lynn, an Ormond Beach Republican who -- under scrutiny -- gave up a lucrative position at a Florida State University research center she helped to fund.
Add to the list former House speaker Marco Rubio, a Republican from Miami who landed a $69,000-per-year job at Florida International University this summer.
No Quid Pro Quo, President Says
Much of the scrutiny on Sansom concerns $25.5 million he helped steer toward Northwest Florida State College during a year when budgets were being cut across the state. The money went in large part toward a student services center building.
The money for the college was drawn from a state tax on utilities that funds education-related construction projects in Florida. Before the last legislative session, community colleges submitted priorities for construction to the State Board of Education, which suggested Northwest Florida State College receive just $1 million this year for planning. The project, however, was “accelerated” to stimulate job growth in Florida’s downward economy, according to a spokeswoman for Sansom.
Jill Chamberlain, spokeswoman for the speaker, noted that it’s within the Legislature’s authority to allocate dollars as they see fit, even if doing so goes against the recommendations of the State Board of Education or the Board of Governors, which submits priorities for universities.
“They have the final authority to do that, subject to the checks of the governor’s veto pen,” she said. “The idea that one project benefits while another one doesn’t, that’s just the way it works in distributing dollars.”
There were a number of projects that received more funding this fiscal year than the Board of Education had asked for, but none saw a windfall like Northwest Florida State College -- and only one came anywhere close. The Legislature approved $18.5 million for Indian River State College’s new science center, a project that the board didn’t even request money for this year. The center will be housed at the college’s Port St. Lucie branch campus, which is situated in the district of former Senate President Ken Pruitt, a Republican and Indian River alumnus -- not an employee, however.
Asked about the money steered toward Northwest Florida State, and the subsequent job offer for Sansom, Richburg bristled at the suggestion of any connection.
“The whole issue of the quid pro quo is just absolutely not there,” he said.
Richburg, who happened to be traveling to Alabama Wednesday, quickly rejected any comparison of the Sansom hire to the scandals in Alabama’s community college system that have led to resignations and even criminal charges.
“This is not a show job,” Richburg said. “This is an absolutely legitimate job. Those situations in Alabama, it’s unfair to compare them to those; many of those were no-show jobs.
“This man will do a job. I will hold him accountable, and the board will hold me to that.”
Sansom, who did not respond to an interview request Wednesday, has been criticized by at least one lawmaker for not answering questions about his new job. Rep. Franklin Sands, the Democratic House leader, issued a statement Monday urging Sansom “to be forthright about his involvement with Northwest Florida State College, and to answer reporters' questions about how he has handled the appropriations process.”
“We do not aim to embarrass a colleague,” Sands’ statement reads. “But we think the Speaker should address these reports. If left to fester, the allegations may cast a haze over the Legislature and its work.”
Sansom is feeling heat from other quarters, too. A column penned by none other than Joe Scarborough, the former Republican Congressman from Florida turned MSNBC pundit, ran in the Pensacola News Journal Wednesday, and reportedly had Tallahassee abuzz.
“The past month has show that my old friend [Sansom] lacks the judgment and character to lead Florida Republicans into the future,” Scarborough wrote.
“Republicans deserve better.
“So does our state.”