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Kevin Ambler's battle for state Senate seat heats up in court

An attorney for state Rep. Kevin Ambler appeared before a Leon County judge Tuesday for the first hearing in a suit challenging Jim Norman's state Senate run.

Norman, a Hillsborough County commissioner, defeated Ambler in the Aug. 24 Republican primary for the District 12 state Senate seat.

Ambler's suit contends that Norman shouldn't have appeared on the ballot because his state-mandated financial disclosure form did not include a $435,000 loan from now-deceased Hills­borough businessman Ralph Hughes. The lawsuit also alleges Norman didn't disclose two boats registered in his name in Arkansas.

The boats were included in a $435,000 cash purchase of an Arkansas house by Norman's wife, Mearline.

The FBI is investigating whether there's a connection between Norman, Hughes and the Arkansas home. Norman has hired criminal defense attorney Frank Winkles to represent him in the federal investigation. Winkles is out of the country until the first week of October and could not be reached for comment.

"Its all a bunch of nothing. I will be glad when its behind me," Jim Norman wrote in an e-mail Tuesday.

At the hearing in Tallahassee, his other attorney, Christopher Lunny, asked Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford to dismiss the case, saying it belongs in the hands of the state ethics commission.

Ambler's attorney, Mark Herron, disagreed.

"Their arguments were, 'Hey you can't turn an election code violation into a qualification issue and an eligibility issue,' " Herron said in an interview. "We said this requirement is as important to the process of people getting elected as people being over the age of 21 and living in the district."

Herron also argued that the ethics commission isn't scheduled to meet again until Oct. 22 and won't be able to make a decision before the Nov. 2 election.

"As a result, this court has jurisdiction to proceed," Herron said.

Ambler of Lutz wants the state Elections Canvassing Commission to invalidate the District 12 Republican primary results seat and have election officials declare him the Republican nominee.

The district includes portions of Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

Herron has asked Fulford to expedite the case.

She is expected to issue a ruling today.

Norman and his wife are scheduled for depositions Friday in Tampa, Herron said.

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, Norman's name will appear on ballots.

Pasco County has already mailed 1,000 absentee ballots with Norman's name on them.

Hillsborough County election officials on Friday delivered 5,595 absentee ballots to the post office and another 69,000 will be mailed Monday, according to spokesman Travis Abercrombie.

Nearly 20,000 of those ballots, destined for District 12 voters, include Norman's name.

The remaining ballots for the general election are now being printed with Norman's name on them, Abercrombie said.

If Ambler wins his challenge and becomes the Republican nominee, a vote cast for Norman would be considered votes for Ambler, Herron said.

That's what happened in South Florida in 2006, when U.S. Rep. Mark Foley abandoned his re-election bid amid a sex scandal and Joe Negron replaced him as the Republican nominee.

Negron lost the race and now serves in the state Senate.

With no Democrat in the District 12 state Senate race, the election is a contest between the Republican nominee and two write-in candidates.

One of them attends college in North Carolina and the other works at Petco and Target stores.

Questioned by reporters about the Arkansas house during the campaign, Norman said it belonged solely to his wife, who does not work outside the home. He said she bought it with the help of unnamed investors.

He said he never received any money from Hughes personally. He also said he did not disclose the boats because he thought they were valued at less than the $1,000 reporting requirement.

Norman has said he would adjust his financial disclosure documents to include the boats if necessary, but has not done that yet.

Hughes, who died in 2008 at age 77, made his fortune in building materials and used it to fund the campaigns of candidates who shared his belief in smaller government.

Over the years, Hughes, his relatives and close business associates contributed heavily to Norman's election campaigns, directing at least $15,000 to Norman for his 2002 and 2006 commission runs.

In 2009, the IRS filed claims against the Hughes estate, alleging that when Hughes died he and his precast concrete company owed $300 million in corporate and income taxes and penalties.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Kevin Ambler's battle for state Senate seat heats up in court 09/21/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 1:24pm]

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