Aide to state Sen. Jim Norman accused of not filing tax returns for five years

Published February 1 2012
Updated February 2 2012

TAMPA — Authorities may have cleared state Sen. Jim Norman after looking into his wife's acquisition of a lakefront Arkansas home with money from one of his benefactors.

But the federal investigation into the home purchase has ensnared a longtime aide and friend of Norman's.

In an indictment unsealed Wednesday, Benjamin A. Kelly, 56, of Tampa is charged with five counts of failure to file federal tax returns for each of the five years from 2006 through 2010.

"The facts underlying these charges arose out of the Norman investigation," said U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill.

Kelly was Norman's aide for much of his 18-year tenure as a Hillsborough County commissioner, which ended in 2010. Kelly followed Norman to the state Senate, to which he was elected the same year.

The indictment was unsealed the same day Norman, R-Tampa, was named chairman of the Senate's finance and tax committee.

Calls to Norman, Kelly and Kelly's attorney, Ronald Cacciatore, were not returned.

The indictment says Kelly made from $76,738 to $108,037 annually during the five years covered in the indictment, but failed to file a tax return in any of them. Each count is a misdemeanor.

The figures appear to capture not only Kelly's pay as a commission aide, which topped out at $73,049 in 2009, but also money he received while working on Norman's campaigns for public office and possibly other pay.

In 2006, for instance, Kelly's W-2 form from the county says he was paid $66,114. That same year, Norman paid him an additional $7,092 for work on his re-election campaign to the County Commission, though a small portion of that was reimbursements for costs such as gas.

The Norman campaign also paid Kelly's wife, Heather Kelly, an additional $10,500, according to disclosure reports. From 2008 through 2010, Norman paid the Kellys $31,490 for work on his Senate campaign. Heather Kelly is not named in the indictment.

Benjamin Kelly's W-2 forms indicate that he did have money withheld from his County Commission aide pay for federal income taxes. The records indicate he paid $6,952 in taxes in 2006. In 2009, when his pay reached its peak, he paid $7,514.

The indictment does not accuse Kelly of failing to pay taxes, but failing to file returns.

"The difference between the two is the old 'action vs. omission,' " said Latour "L.T." Lafferty, a white-collar crime lawyer with Fowler White Boggs.

Anyone who receives taxable income is required to file a tax return. Tax evasion typically involves someone who knowingly files false information.

Norman was the subject of a roughly yearlong investigation by federal authorities over his wife's 2006 purchase of an Arkansas home. A lawsuit stemming from the purchase revealed Mearline Norman accepted $500,000 from late businessman Ralph Hughes to buy the house.

Hughes regularly appeared before commissioners to speak against taxes and fees and was a generous campaign backer of Norman's. Norman said he had no involvement in the home deal, and O'Neill announced in November that he could not prove a crime.

Somewhere along the way, prosecutors looked at Kelly, who not only has worked for Norman but is a close friend of his.

Kelly regularly joined Norman at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games, taking advantage of free luxury suite tickets the commissioner got as a member of the Tampa Sports Authority.

When Norman was discovered gambling with lobbyists at Las Vegas' Bellagio casino in 1999 after telling fellow board members he was tending to "family matters," Kelly was at his side.

During Norman's 2002 re-election bid, he purchased a used Chevrolet Silverado for $6,690 to campaign. After the election, he sold it to Kelly for $500.

Norman said the truck barely ran. Kelly drove it for a couple of years afterward.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Sue Carlton and Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.