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Ambler vs. Norman election lawsuit goes to court Tuesday

TALLAHASSEE — Seven weeks after losing to Jim Norman in the Republican primary for state Senate, Kevin Ambler hopes for a different result today in a Leon County courtroom.

But whatever its outcome, Ambler's challenge to Norman's election already has done collateral damage to Norman, a longtime Hillsborough County commissioner once touted as a future Senate president.

In pretrial proceedings, Norman has had to reveal details about his wife Mearline's 2006 purchase of a lakefront house in Arkansas.

Money for that purchase came from the late Ralph Hughes, a prominent businessman and antitax activist who died in 2008. The FBI also is looking at the connection between Norman and Hughes in an investigation that could last beyond the Tallahassee case.

Today's trial centers on a narrow question: Did Norman violate campaign disclosure laws?

Yes, says Ambler, a trial lawyer and state representative. Norman omitted assets and liabilities from his financial disclosure statements, he said, and so was not qualified to run.

The assets are a 16-foot Sierra 160 speedboat and a 28-foot Weeres pontoon boat with engine and trailer, both acquired in the Arkansas purchase and titled in Norman's name. Ambler says each is worth more than $1,000, the threshold for being reported.

No way, Norman says. At more than 19 years old, the boats are not worth $1,000 combined.

At a hearing Monday, Norman's attorneys said knocking him off the Nov. 2 ballot would undermine the voters' will.

"It's undisputed in this case that he took this running away, by about 12 percentage points," said Norman attorney Daniel Brown.

Brown argued that the correct venue for such a challenge is the Florida Commission on Ethics. If the commission ruled after Norman was elected, the final decision would rest with the Senate, where Norman was the preferred candidate of incoming president Mike Haridopolos and other leaders.

Brown noted that Ambler, in his deposition, said Norman told him two years ago that "they had found their dream house." Yet Ambler didn't file a complaint about the disclosure form when the race began, Brown said.

"He was on notice of the facts they are now alleging from the very get-go, at the front end of the election cycle," Brown said.

Then there's Hughes' share of the $435,000 that Mearline Norman paid for the home.

Norman's attorneys argued there is no evidence showing Jim Norman had a business interest in the property, even though he has conceded that his wife and Hughes had an informal partnership.

"In that sense, your honor, there is no reason to report this as an asset," said Norman attorney Christopher Lunny.

But about $100,000 from the Normans' joint bank account went to buy and fix up the house, said Ambler's attorney, Mark Herron.

Mearline Norman had not earned income since 1993, so "essentially the money being moved is Mr. Norman's money," Herron said.

Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford said Norman's attorneys wanted her to exclude "a big part of the picture." She noted that Jim Norman could be a business partner because his name is listed on the title of the two boats, which were part of the real estate deal.

Norman's attorneys also said the judge should exclude:

• Photographs of the Arkansas home (irrelevant to whether the house is an asset, they say).

• A proposed expert on boat valuation (added too late to the witness list, the defense says).

• An "open letter" Hughes once wrote to support Norman. (Again, irrelevant.)

Ambler filed the lawsuit a week after the Aug. 31 primary election. It has since moved rapidly with hopes of a resolution before the general election.

Late Monday, Judge Fulford denied a motion from Norman's team to dismiss the case. The trial is scheduled to begin at 7:30 a.m. and there could be a decision this evening.

With no Democrat on the ballot to represent Senate District 12 in northern Hillsborough and central Pasco counties, Norman was all but guaranteed a victory before the suit.

But the lawsuit also carries political risks for Ambler. Norman's attorneys have accused his team of straying way off topic to discredit Norman.

"If the discovery went into certain areas, shame on the people involved because of this public bloodletting," said Ryan Rodems, a Republican lawyer in Tampa not connected to the case.

Whoever wins, the loser will probably appeal, lawyers outside the case say. But they are divided on what Fulford might do if she finds his election disclosure forms were lacking.

Rather than declaring Ambler the nominee, she might issue a reprimand, or allow the Republican Executive Committee to name a replacement, Rodems said. The party could even allow Norman to serve as the replacement, much the way Hillsborough commission candidates Linda Saul-Sena and John Dingfelder replaced themselves after they missed a resign-to-run deadline.

In 2006, the GOP picked Will Weatherford as its nominee in state House District 61 in Pasco and Hillsborough counties after incumbent Ken Littlefield was appointed to the Public Service Commission and decided not to seek re-election. Weatherford's name didn't appear on the ballot, but voters were told that a vote for Littlefield would count as a vote for Weatherford.

Also unclear is what would happen to all the absentee ballots already cast for Norman. Such ballots accounted for 21 percent of the votes cast in the primary. As of Monday, Hillsborough elections officials had sent out 22,692 vote-by-mail ballots to voters in District 12 and have received 2,887 back. Pasco had sent out about 10,000 absentee and overseas ballots.

Making a 180-degree turn now would be expensive and cumbersome, Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said.

"We don't have an interest in the outcome of the election," he said. "We do have a duty and an obligation to make sure we can run a good election in Pasco County. That is our interest."

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

Ambler vs. Norman election lawsuit goes to court Tuesday 10/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 10:39am]
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