Commentary: Rubio steps into uncomfortable spotlight

Marco Rubio's campaign to win the Republican Senate primary revolves around the now-famous hug that Gov. Charlie Crist shared with Barack Obama during a presidential visit to Fort Myers last year.

Now Rubio, the darling of Tea Party conservatives, is getting uncomfortably squeezed himself.

Last week, a committee of the Florida House of Representatives put Rubio's name on a list of witnesses who could be subpoenaed to testify about the Ray Sansom scandal.

Sansom, a fellow Republican from Destin, was Rubio's handpicked budget chief while Rubio served as the House speaker in 2007-2008. Sansom used his leverage to route more than $35 million in public funds to little Northwest Florida State College.

The most flagrant waste was $6 million to construct a 30,000-foot airplane hangar for one of Sansom's pals and campaign donors, a developer named Jay Odom. Sansom liked to fly on Odom's plane and bill the state GOP for the ride.

Florida TaxWatch flagged the airport project as a "turkey," but it sailed through. Crist chose not to veto it.

The scam unraveled soon after Sansom took over the powerful House speaker's post from Rubio. It was discovered that on that same day Sansom had become a vice president of Northwest State at a salary of $110,000.

It smelled like a payoff, and prosecutors perked up. Samson, who eventually resigned as House speaker, was indicted for official misconduct and is now awaiting trial.

Once the story broke, Northwest Florida State officials insisted the airplane hangar was really "an emergency-training education" facility where students could attend classes, presumably while perched on the wings of private jets.

You can understand why Rubio isn't thrilled to talk about his old pal. It was only a year ago that Rubio said Samson should stay on as speaker, and called him "one of the best people I ever interacted with in the legislative process."

That statement raises a serious question about Rubio's judgment: What judgment?

He personally chose Sansom to shepherd the House budget, both men preaching the standard mantra of thrift and fiscal conservatism.

And while public schools and most state colleges were left scrambling for funds, Sansom was blithely showering his alma mater, Northwest Florida State, with millions of tax dollars while lining up a cushy future job for himself.

What does Rubio say about that? Well, he had no earthly idea, of course. And the Odom connection? A total surprise.

See, Florida's budget is so darn humongous that it's easy to sneak $6 million or $35 million past the House speaker, even though he's supposed to be overseeing the whole process.

Last summer, Adam Smith of the St. Petersburg Times asked Rubio about the scandal enveloping his former budget chief.

"As speaker, if anyone wants to put responsibility for anything on you, you have to accept that," Rubio began. "But I would just say the Legislature is not run by a single person.

"We delegated a lot of responsibility, and I think that's how you run an organization, and unfortunately in this case it led to some unfortunate decisions that were made."

Nice try, Marco, but you're either in charge or you're not. You either take the time to examine the budget items or you don't.

How did a self-proclaimed guardian of tax dollars fail to notice all that money pouring into some puny college in his pal's home district?

It's a good question for the House panel investigating this mess, but Republican leaders aren't eager to put Rubio on the hot seat and spoil his shot at the open U.S. Senate seat.

No sooner was the list of witnesses in the Sansom probe announced than it was also revealed that Sansom might agree to a legislative rebuke that would spare Rubio and other GOP lawmakers the embarrassment of testifying.

Meanwhile, the candidate showed up in Fort Myers to once again mock Crist for appearing there with Obama in support of the stimulus package. Rubio says it's a complete failure, although the many Florida teachers whose jobs were saved by those federal funds might disagree.

In any case, Rubio was having fun up on stage, playing the role of Mr. Tax Tightwad. He never mentioned his indicted buddy, Ray Sansom -- "one of the best people" he ever interacted with.

That questionable character endorsement could haunt Rubio in the months ahead. It's worse than a hug -- it's a big wet kiss.