TAMPA — Even as Jim Norman faced serious questions about the purchase of an Arkansas vacation home, the state Senate candidate was getting a financial vote of confidence from the Republican Party of Florida.
On Sept. 28, the party gave Norman $25,000, though he faced only token opposition in the general election and it was public knowledge that he was under FBI investigation.
The party coughed up another $29,932 on Oct. 5. That was four days after Norman, a Hillsborough commissioner, finally admitted that his wife bought the house with the help of $500,000 from a businessman who often lobbied county officials.
Combined, the nearly $55,000 in in-kind "consulting" services is one of the largest direct contributions the Republican Party has made to any Florida legislative candidate since the primary election, according to state campaign finance records.
Party officials say the money helped pay Norman's ever-expanding legal bill.
"Someone was suing to get our nominee kicked off the ballot," said Daniel Conston, a spokesman for the party, who declined to comment on the propriety of Norman's wife, Mearline, accepting money from the now-deceased businessman Ralph Hughes. "The defense of his seat has had a significant expense."
Norman is fighting a court challenge from Kevin Ambler, a state representative who lost to Norman in the Republican primary.
Ambler's suit charges that Norman should not have been qualified for the primary ballot because he failed to include the Arkansas home and two boats purchased with Hughes' money on state-required financial disclosure forms. A judge last week disqualified Norman from the ballot, a decision Norman is appealing.
His legal team includes a criminal defense lawyer. Conston said the Republican Party contribution is paying only attorneys helping Norman try to hold onto his candidacy.
"It's standard practice,'' Conston said. "It would be strange if we didn't pay for our nominee's legal bills as it related to him being on the ballot."
The only state Senate candidate who has received more direct financial support from the party since the primary election is Ellyn Bogdanoff, a state representative running to replace Jeff Atwater in the Florida Senate.
She received about $68,000. Much of that paid for items such as fundraising, polling and campaign staff.
The Republican Party gave more to Norman than to many of its House candidates, including those in highly competitive races.
The GOP contributed about $38,000 to Jeff Brandes' run against St. Petersburg's Democratic incumbent Bill Heller, and about $21,800 to Dana Young's battle with Democrat Stacy Frank in Tampa.
The in-kind contribution from the Republican Party of Florida represents about 80 percent of Norman's $66,000 fundraising total for the general election.
Florida election law allows candidates to use campaign money for legal bills related to their candidacy.
"Those kinds of things that can be linked directly to the campaign, that would be an appropriate campaign expenditure," said Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee-based election law attorney. "If a candidate is getting a divorce, for example, they can't use campaign money to pay for legal fees related to the divorce."
Meyer notes, however, that this case is unusual because it involves two Republican candidates.
"Obviously, they've chosen sides here," Meyer said.
The Republican Party of Florida reinforced that perception Tuesday when it intervened in the case to challenge a move by Ambler to be named the nominee in November.
Ambler says that because he was the only qualified Republican candidate in the August primary, he should be declared the victor.
Party officials say state law dictates that the party should choose Norman's replacement. A judge agreed with their position on Tuesday, declining to name Ambler to the post and ruling that it is vacant.
Paul Phillips is a former officer in the Hillsborough County Republican Party who filed an ethics complaint against Norman days before the August primary. The complaint included allegations almost identical to those in Ambler's lawsuit.
Phillips says it is "irresponsible" and "inappropriate" for the Republican Party of Florida to spend money on Norman's legal defense.
"It's a violation of trust to defend a guy who had legitimate ethical questions raised about him," he said.
Phillips said this type of action is what led to the rise of the tea party and has eroded trust in the Republican establishment.
"I understand that they're trying to defend their guy," Phillips said. "But come on."
Conston, the Republican Party spokesman, said the party won't be paying for Norman's appeal.
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.