When it comes to trusting people you put in office and the honesty they owe you while they're there, here's a question:
Why Kevin White and not Jim Norman?
In a federal courtroom this week came an inglorious end for White, the former Hillsborough County commissioner. Accused of taking $8,000 in payoffs in exchange for his influence in getting tow truck operators lucrative towing gigs, White was convicted of seven of 10 corruption charges. It was a long fall for a once-powerful politician.
Then there's Norman, a fellow former commissioner. He caught federal investigators' attention with news that his wife bought a vacation home with the help of $500,000 from a guy named Ralph Hughes, millionaire businessman, political activist and longtime Norman supporter.
White is staring down prison time. Norman sits fat and sassy in Tallahassee as a state senator.
Maybe you're thinking: eight grand vs. six figures. A promising political path vs. prison. What's the story here?
The answer may lie with a U.S. Supreme Court decision involving former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling.
First, the case against White. In secret recordings that made you want to take a hot shower afterward, you saw him willing to trade the power invested in him to pretty much anyone willing to pay up. Quid pro quo, they call it. Something for something. I give you this, you give me that.
In White's case, secret recordings and live testimony detailed cash (the "this") in exchange for White's promise and push to get tow truck company owners' names onto towing rotation lists that could mean serious money for them (the "that.")
Then, Norman. As news stories reported, his wife, Mearline, bought a lakefront vacation home in Arkansas with cash from Hughes. The owner of a construction materials business who has since died, Hughes had appeared regularly before the commission to push progrowth, antitax polices and long supported Norman in his political campaigns.
Norman told reporters he wasn't involved in the home purchase, which he called his wife's "investment." The feds appeared most interested.
Now, about the U.S. Supreme Court.
Prosecutors sometimes go after public officials and business executives for "honest services" fraud — as in, you owed honest services to the public or your employees, and you did not give them that. But in a decision last year involving Enron's Skilling, justices weakened the law considerably.
Prosecutors can still use "honest services" in cases with evidence of bribes or kickbacks. But they need that quid pro quo, that something for something. They need to be able to show that he gave you this, and you gave him that.
We know from their sweeping records requests that investigators looked hard at Norman's relationship with Hughes. They ordered everything, from the oath commissioners take to Norman's conflict of interest forms to Hughes' appearances at county meetings. Had they found a specific, concrete thing Norman gave Hughes, I bet you'd be reading a different story.
But a transaction that smells, even if it really smells, isn't enough — even if you think it should be.