December 22, 2008

Ray Sansom has no credibility left on education, and neither does Northwest Florida State College

Yesterday's Panama City News Herald called for Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom to quit his leadership post in the legislature, a month after the Northwest Florida Daily News broke the story December 19 that he had become a vice president at Northwest Florida State College. December 19 was the same day he became Speaker of the Florida House. His official position is Vice President of Planning and Development, but one suspects the true title is Vice President of Mutual Back-Scratching. Here's the sequence of what Florida citizens have learned, thanks to solid investigative reporting, especially by Alex Leary of the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald capitol bureau:

  • On November 20, the Daily News reported that Sansom's pay is $25,000 more than his predecessor's. Sansom tells the newspaper that he sees no conflict of interest, and Common Cause of Florida says it cannot pursue the common-sense concerns about such conflicts because the legislature's standards on conflicts of interest are "notoriously weak."
  • On November 21, Alex Leary reported that Sansom's new job is $27,000 more than his former job for the Alabama Electric Cooperative, that Sansom put $200,000 into the state budget to create a "leadership institute" at the college (Sansom was budget chief in the state House last session), and that he was a prime mover behind legislation to turn a bunch of the state's community colleges into "state colleges" with four-year programs. In doing so, the former Okaloosa-Walton Community College became Northwest Florida State College. (Disclosure: I work at USF, and there are concerns in the state university system that this ad hoc state college system is going to lead to massive duplication of programs and conflicts surrounding supervisory authority over baccalaureate degrees.) Liberal state activist group Progress Florida asks whether there was a quid pro quo, Sansom's job in return for money and more authority funneled to the college. "Absolutely not" is the response of the college's president, Bob Richburg.  
  • On November 24, a Orlando Sentinel editorial declares that Sansom's new job has a "rotten smell," asking, "Who would have thought that the state's public colleges and universities would turn into a jobs program for state legislators?"
  • On November 28, Leary reported that Sansom steered far more to Okaloosa-Walton/Northwest Florida than had previously been reported. He performed a magic trick, turning $1 million in recommended capital construction funding into $31 million (more than any other community college in Florida, even those with far more students). And the startup funds for the college's "leadership institute" was $750,000, not $200,000. 
  • Also on November 28, editorials in the Palm Beach Post and Panama City News Herald call for Sansom to resign his position at the college, and on November 30, the St. Petersburg Times editorial board said Sansom had "the lowest personal credibility in memory for a new House speaker." (Yesterday, the News Herald went further by calling for Sansom to quit his leadership position in the legislature.)
  • On December 4, the Northwest Florida Daily News editorial board said that Sansom "deserves every bit of the grief he's getting."
  • On December 7, Leary reported that one of the capital construction projects for Northwest Florida State College was not at the college but an "emergency training center" at Destin Airport, on land belonging to Jay Odom, a Sansom friend and contributor, and the owner of a general aviation company on whose planes Sansom flies (at Republican Party expense, according to the article). State funding for the project through the college came after the state had rejected Odom's prior proposal for an almost identical project. In 2007, he had proposed creating an airport hangar that would be hurricane proof and thus could be turned into an emergency shelter; in other words, he would be able to get public funding for his commercial business. (A hardened structure would be easier to get insurance for.) While Odom denied that the college project was the same idea in a different guise, and that his airplanes would not be parked in the building, one of his employees told Leary otherwise, and the architectural plans refer to aircraft. Sansom denied that the project would benefit his friend, but Odom was part of e-mail correspondence with Sansom and Northwest Florida President Bob Richburg about the airport project. The project was not submitted through the normal legislative process but instead added through back channels. 
  • On December 8, the Palm Beach Post reported that the VP job given Sansom was not advertised openly, that Sansom was the only applicant, and that Sansom's legislative staff (who are state employees) faxed the application to the college from his state office. Sansom's communications director claimed that it occurred without his knowledge, but I'm trying to figure out how he could not have been aware of this: "Uh, I just printed out this application, and I know that I need to get this over to the college president's office 150 miles away, when the board meets tomorrow.  No, I'm not telling you to fax this using state resources. But maybe fairies will help me while I'm at lunch." Riiiiight. The position was added to the college board's consent agenda the next day without prior public notice. (See the minutes of the November 18 meeting for the mention of the tardy addition, one day after Sansom's office had faxed over the application and the day before Sansom became speaker.)
  • On December 10, Leary reported reactions both at the state capitol and also in Okaloosa and Walton counties, and ordinary Floridians were angry. One Tampa resident (Charles Luthin) wrote, "Your decision to hire Rep. Sansom and his decision to take the job not only appears wrong, IT IS WRONG." When asked by reporters of his reaction to a call for an investigation of the deals, Governor Charlie Crist snapped back, "Yeah, next question."
  • On December 14, Leary reported that Northwest Florida President Richburg essentially became Sansom's legislative strategist during the spring session, to secure legislative approval for the new "system" of state colleges. (See disclosure above; I think this is going to be a complete mess.) One of the barriers was getting the college's trustees on board, and at this point here is the one clear violation of Florida law: Okaloosa-Walton gave notice for the meeting in the March 17 Daily News (a small-circulation newspaper in Okaloosa County), but the board met March 24 150 miles away in the state capitol, apparently in a closed room at Florida State University. Richburg wrote Sansom, "It's probably the only way we can do it in privacy but with a public notice here." As the First Amendment Foundation's Barbara Peterson told Leary, "That's a fairly clear statement of intent to avoid, as much as possible, public attendance and/or oversight." 
  • On December 15, the Northwest Florida Daily News reported Sansom's defense of the capital construction funds (finally!). According to Sansom, the expansion of capital funding came as a job booster, and it was tied to existing plans for a student activity center that otherwise would not have been funded or not have been built as quickly. To him, it was completely transparent. (Sansom did not mention the airport project.)
  • On December 17, current MSNBC personality and former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough called for Sansom to step down from the speakership: "The Ray Sansom that I have heard about bears little resemblance to the guy I have known for 15 years. It is maddening to see what power does to some men."
  • On December 18, Leary reported that Sansom's funneling of funds to the college began in 2006, when he became the budget chief for the state House, and total construction funds climbed from the under-$5 million annual funding in the prior four years to over $7 million in 2006, $26 million in 2007, and $31 million in 2008. 
  • Also on December 18, the Northwest Florida Daily News reported Richburg's defense of the March 24 meeting as open. Only one trustee would talk with the Daily News, to say that the meeting wasn't intended to be private. The article also reported that there were no minutes of the meeting.
  • On December 20, other Times and Herald reporters wrote that 18 current or recent legislators had jobs in Florida's public colleges or universities. Of those, 9 had their current jobs when they were elected, but 9 either switched jobs within higher education or like Sansom became college/university employees while they were legislators. (Florida's legislature is part-time and pays relatively little, and most legislators have other jobs during their terms. Disclosure: my union has three members who are legislators, and one who just was term-limited out; all had their current jobs when they were first elected.) 
  • On December 21, Leary reported that public records confirm what he had inferred December 7: the airport project for the college was the hangar that Sansom's friend Jay Odom had wanted public funding for in 2007. From city and other records, it appears the only difference is that the project funded for the college has a few classrooms added on. They college says the project "isn't a hangar but a training center for students in emergency response [and a facility] that will be used by officials during a storm" (Leary's words). The clinching piece of evidence on the manipulation is an e-mail from college President Richburg to Sansom when they were collaborating on a PowerPoint for the March 24 college trustees meeting--the one in Tallahassee but with a notice 150 miles away, and putatively about the state college system. "Somewhere-somehow you should acknowledge how much you appreciate the Board accepting the responsibility of the Destin Special Purpose Center--first responder and homeland security training and local EOC [emergency operations center]."
  • Update: Today, Leary reported in the St Pete Times education blog that Richburg had given Sansom a $122 million wish-list for what he'd like Sansom to funnel to the college before he left the legislature.
This isn't the first time that the little college in Okaloosa County has tripped up a Florida House Speaker: 16 years ago, a similar controversy erupted over Bo Johnson's employment at what was then Okaloosa-Walton Community College. Johnson quit his college job, but he had other troubles, eventually being convicted of tax evasion and serving time. And as reporters have noted, Sansom isn't the only legislator who currently holds a job in a college or university that he got while serving in the legislature. If the legislature is going to be part-time with low pay, you cannot forbid legislators from holding or seeking jobs with public agencies. But there should be a bar on current legislators' taking public jobs that are not openly advertised and competitive, and there should also be a much stricter set of conflict-of-interest rules in the legislature where the state budget is concerned.

Richburg, the college's trustees, and Sansom are all at fault: Richburg, for selling the integrity of the college; the trustees, for looking the other way; and Sansom, for funneling funds to his friends and for refusing to acknowledge or respond to the public outcry in the last month. The members of the board of trustees:

  • Wesley Wilkerson, Chair
  • Sandy Sims, Vice Chair
  • Elizabeth S. Campbell
  • Joseph W. Henderson
  • Brian Pennington
  • Dale E. Rice, Jr.
  • Vercell Vance
  • Esteena "Teena" K. Wells
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Tags: Bob Richburg, Florida legislature, higher education, Ray Sansom, scandal
Posted in Higher education on December 22, 2008 11:15 AM |