Miami Herald Editorial: Tallahassee’s culture of anything goes

Oct 9, 2009

The Miami Herald published this editorial on October 9, 2009

Despite ruling, former House Speaker Ray Sansom’s actions still not ethical

There is criminal misconduct, and there’s unethical behavior. In Tallahassee, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint which is which.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis alludes to that point in his 18-page ruling dismissing key charges against former House Speaker Ray Sansom and a $6 million airport hangar — oops, according to the judge it wasn’t established that it would be a hangar for Jay Odom, a political pal of Mr. Sansom’s.

A grand jury heard evidence that the building would serve as a hangar for Mr. Odom to lease, though it was billed in the state budget as a “staging area” for emergency training and included classrooms for Northwest Florida State College in an appropriation marked “Okalooosa Jt Use Emergency Response Workforce Center.”

Mr. Sansom got a lucrative job at the college shortly after the construction funds were approved. Under public pressure he resigned from that job in January.

In dismissing an official misconduct charge against Mr. Sansom, the judge noted: “A fair reading of the Grand Jury’s Presentment should give pause to members of the Legislature, and anyone else who cares about public trust and confidence in our government institutions.”

Yes, it should. But will the Legislature act this time?

This is not the first legislator embroiled in controversy surrounding public projects.

Key leaders in the Legislature add and subtract from the budget and then rush it to the members, who have just days to approve thousands of items. That’s not a sound way to establish public policy, but it has been that way for so long that few in the Legislature seem to think there’s a problem.

The $6 million, as one person put it to the grand jury, “was a gnat hitting a windshield” in the context of all the gnats buzzing around Tallahassee.

That culture of anything goes and the taxpayers be damned, can’t be tolerated.

For starters, if the law is “overly broad,” as the judge maintains, and unconstitutional in this case, then the state’s highest court should say so. State Attorney Willie Meggs is right to want the Attorney General’s Office to appeal.

Despite the judge’s ruling, the former House speaker is not out of the woods. A legislative committee investigating Mr. Sansom’s conduct has hired a former statewide prosecutor to look into whether the Destin Republican violated House rules when he was a budget chairman and inserted the $6 million into the budget.

This investigation shouldn’t be dragged out. The facts are in. If Mr. Sansom’s actions are deemed ethical by House rules, then the rules don’t merit the public’s trust.