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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Shady Deals in the Sunshine State?

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has launched another ad attacking GOP primary opponent Marco Rubio — and the ethics and legality of his past dealings. They’re campaigning to get the Republican nod for a Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Mel Martinez. The primary is in August.

Crist’s ad draws parallels between Rubio, a former state House speaker, and Ray Sansom, Rubio’s budget chairman when he was speaker and, until recently, a state representative. The ad claims both were known for "preposterous deal-making," and this isn’t the first time voters in Florida have heard such criticism. Rubio and Sansom both steered state money to Florida universities and later accepted part-time jobs at the institutions — jobs that carried pretty hefty salaries for teaching posts.

The ad goes a bit too far, though, when it implies that Rubio, like Sansom, may soon face legal troubles because of his actions. Sansom was indicted in 2009 for a separate budget deal that gave money to a college and benefited a developer friend of Sansom. The case is still in the courts, but the ad offers no evidence that Rubio is on the verge of an indictment as well.

There has been plenty of published criticism of Rubio getting the teaching job after being instrumental in securing funding for Florida International University. A July 31, 2008, Orlando Sentinel editorial questioned whether Rubio got the part-time gig with a $69,000 salary because he supported millions in state funding for a new medical school at the university. And that wasn’t the only bit of funding: A May 2007 article in the South Florida Business Journal listed state money totaling $29 million that went to the university and quoted the university’s vice president of governmental relations as thanking "our Miami delegation and House Speaker Marco Rubio" for a "great year" in funding.

Sansom, meanwhile, was recently under investigation by a House panel for funneling money to another institution of higher learning, Northwest Florida State College, and subsequently taking a high-paying part-time job there. Sansom was Rubio’s budget chief in 2007-2008, when, according to the Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times, "Sansom steered $35 million in extra or accelerated money to Northwest Florida State College." Sansom then accepted a job with the college in November 2008.

Rubio, along with other political figures, had been subpoenaed by the House panel investigating Sansom’s ethical conduct. Sansom, however, quit the House, avoiding any hearings.

The Herald/Times reporters wrote about the similarities in the two politicians’ post-House academic positions in a December 2009 article that said about 20 current and former lawmakers have been hired by state colleges and universities. So, true enough, both have been involved in some questionable ethical deals. But then the ad implies that Rubio has been subpoenaed for a case in which Sansom was indicted. That’s not what happened. The announcer simply says: "Sansom indicted, Rubio subpoenaed."

As we said, Rubio was subpoenaed by the House panel, which had its investigation upended by Sansom’s resignation. Sansom was indicted on a felony charge by a grand jury looking into a separate matter: a case where Sansom secured $6 million for an airport emergency operations center that would have benefited a developer friend of Sansom. The money to build the center, which would have doubled as a training facility, went to Northwest Florida State College, whose president was also indicted. Both Rubio and Crist — who could have vetoed the funding but didn’t — say they didn’t know the project would have benefited Sansom’s friend.

The ad ends by leading viewers to believe that Rubio will face legal troubles of his own — "Marco Rubio – It’s not just what we know, it’s what we don’t know … YET" — but the support for the ad provides no evidence that there is indeed more to come.

One nitpicky point: The ad slightly misrepresents the words of two newspapers. An on-screen graphic attributes the words "preposterous deal-making" to the Orlando Sentinel, and another graphic credits the Florida Times Union for the phrase "cushy job." In both cases, the ad says the words were applied to both Rubio and Samson, but the papers were referring only to Rubio.