TAMPA — Inspired by Jim Norman's day in court, the vice chairman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party is suing state House candidate James Grant over a $40,000 loan Grant made to his own campaign.
Vice Chairman Chris Mitchell already filed an official elections complaint about the loan, which Mitchell claims was an illegal campaign contribution from First Citrus Bank. But Mitchell said he decided to litigate in fear that the issue wouldn't be resolved by Election Day, Nov. 2.
"I was encouraged by Friday's decision by a Tallahassee judge to see through the same discrepancies that Jim Norman had on his financial disclosure statement," Mitchell said in a statement, "and I then realized that our only option to get to the truth before this election and before the voters have buyers' remorse, like the Jim Norman case, is to act quickly and go to court to compel Jamie to tell the truth under oath."
Norman, who was running to represent north Hillsborough in Senate District 12, got tossed off the ballot by a Leon County Circuit Court judge last week for not disclosing a half-million-dollar gift to his wife from an influential businessman. The unprecedented ruling came after state Rep. Kevin Ambler, who lost to Norman in the primary election, sued him.
Grant, the son of former state Sen. John Grant, is running against Democrat Michael Steinberg for the District 47 state House seat representing northwest Hillsborough.
In Wednesday's lawsuit, Mitchell claims that Grant reported a negative net worth on his financial disclosure statement while listing the $40,000 personal loan to his campaign on a Sept. 10 campaign finance report.
"He has a lot of answering to do," Mitchell said. "All he has to do is come forward and say, 'This is where the money came from.' He's just hoping we're going to let this go."
Grant dismissed the suit as frivolous.
"It's a desperate attempt by someone who knows he can't get votes trying to piggyback on the Norman situation," Grant said. "At the end of the day, they're costing the taxpayers dollars over something that's completely unfounded and pathetic."
Grant said the loan is collateralized by a certificate of deposit composed of his own assets. His financial disclosure form, he said, is based on his earnings in 2009. That year, he said, he was only a practicing lawyer for about two months and his net worth was a negative $5,870.
The form, though, says that was his net worth as of June 14, 2010.
Grant said that's a clerical error and is actually the day he filled out the document. He said he will amend the form to correct the mistake.
Grant said he was able to create the CD to back the loan because after Oct. 22, 2009, he began earning a decent salary and collecting bonuses working at his brother's law firm, where his father also works. He also notes that the form lists his assets as $67,000, including a $28,000 cash management account that increased in value in 2010 as the stock market recovered.
"Those assets are my personal assets that I earned over the year," Grant said. "It's like they never heard of a lawyer being able to make a decent living."
Also in the lawsuit, Mitchell again questions contributions Grant got within five days of the contested primary election, which state law prohibits.
Grant amended his financial reports after Mitchell's original elections complaint on Oct. 2 to reflect that the contributions were made after the primary election. Mitchell's new lawsuit states that the change shows that Grant's financial disclosure statement and contribution reports were inaccurate.
Mitchell's attorney, Nancy Jacobs, said she's seeking an emergency hearing in Hillsborough County Circuit Court.
Jacobs said the suit doesn't necessarily aim to boot James off the ballot, but it depends on what facts come out.
Mitchell said, "Until we see actual dated checks, deposit slips, bank statements, loan and CD papers we will not know the truth, and we'll be stuck in a Jim Norman-like situation."