TAMPA—A lawsuit seeking to remove state Senate candidate Jim Norman from the November ballot can continue, a judge in Tallahassee ruled Wednesday.
That means Norman, a Hillsborough County commissioner under investigation by the FBI, soon could be questioned under oath about allegations involving a loan from now-deceased Seffner businessman Ralph Hughes.
State Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz, contends that Hughes, who benefited from Norman's pro-business commission votes, loaned Norman $435,000 in 2006 to buy a waterfront home in Arkansas. Hughes died in 2008 and Norman tried to have the county Moral Courage Award named for him. Norman and his wife also acquired two boats in the Arkansas deal.
"One possible penalty for failing to provide a full and public disclosure is 'disqualification from being on the ballot,' " Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford wrote in a brief ruling.
Norman's attorney, Christopher Lunny, had argued that the matter belonged before the state ethics commission. Such a complaint was filed shortly before the Aug. 24 primary.
But Fulford found that because the ethics commission is not likely to consider the matter before Election Day, the case should remain in court.
The lawsuit, which also names state and county election officials, was filed Aug. 31. That was one week after Norman took 56 percent of the Republican vote in a primary contest for the District 12 seat, which includes parts of both Hillsborough and Pasco counties. There is no Democrat in the race, but there are two write-in candidates.
Lunny said he will file a motion today asking Fulford to halt the trial and send the issue to an appellate court. Lunny also plans to file a motion to limit what documents Ambler's attorney can request before the trial begins. A hearing is set for 3:30 p.m. today.
Neither Norman nor Ambler could be reached for comment.
Questioned during the campaign, Norman said his wife, Mearline, bought the Arkansas house with money from investors, but he would not name them. As for the boats, Norman said he had not realized their value and would declare them as assets at a later date.
It is not clear when Norman will be called to testify. Although a court docket says his deposition is Friday afternoon, Ambler attorney Mark Herron told the judge he wants to depose several other witnesses first.
Among them: a real estate agent in Arkansas and several people in Tampa who can identify the source of the money used for the house. Herron also will seek bank records.
Lunny, meanwhile, said he will depose Ambler because "he's known about this since July" and is just bringing up the allegations.
In recent weeks, it has been revealed that the FBI is investigating Norman's possible connection to Hughes, and Norman has hired criminal lawyer Frank Winkles to represent him.
Local lawyers familiar with but not involved with the Tallahassee lawsuit had mixed opinions as to how Norman might handle his deposition.
Jim and Mearline Norman could assert spousal privilege, meaning they should not have to divulge their private communications. Tampa defense lawyer John Fitzgibbons said that strategy would be risky, as judges do not always accept spousal privilege when it comes to business deals.
Safer, but with political consequences, would be for Norman to assert Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
"Absolutely, he can take the Fifth, and I suspect his criminal lawyer will advise him to take the Fifth," Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen said. "But that doesn't mean he did anything wrong."
Still, in a civil case, a judge or jury can be swayed by a Fifth Amendment plea. And, added lawyer Eddie Suarez, "I think it would be hard for him, after that, to maintain the trust of the electorate."
If the trial moves forward, it likely would begin Oct. 12.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 624-2739.