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Feds close investigation of Sen. Jim Norman without bringing charges

TAMPA — Jim Norman's financial link to a longtime political benefactor nearly derailed his run for state Senate — but, according to federal officials, didn't break the law.

U.S. Attorney Robert E. O'Neill announced Monday his office had closed a more-than-year-long federal investigation into the former Hillsborough County commissioner's relationship with Ralph Hughes, a local political activist and businessman who died in 2008.

"A diligent investigation by federal investigators failed to uncover evidence of a violation of federal criminal law by State Senator Norman," O'Neill said in a statement. "As a result, this office is closing the current investigation."

Norman, a Tampa Republican, served as a Hillsborough commissioner for 18 years before winning a Senate seat last year.

Hughes, who routinely appeared before the County Commission, gave Norman's wife, Mearline, $500,000 to buy an Arkansas lakefront vacation home in 2006 while Norman was on the commission. Norman has maintained he was not involved in the deal.

Hughes' son, Shea, has testified that the $500,000 was a loan to Mearline payable to the Hughes' family trust. He did not return a call Monday.

Norman also did not return a message seeking comment. His attorney, Frank Winkles of Tampa, released a written statement Monday.

"Throughout this investigation we have met numerous times with government officials handling the investigation and have been fully cooperative with them in offering to provide anything they wished to examine," the statement said. "Mr. and Mrs. Norman wish to express their appreciation for the straightforwardness of Mr. O'Neill in bringing this to a conclusion."

Last February, authorities filed a sweeping public records request in their investigation into Norman's conduct as a former commissioner.

Among the documents sought from the county: his oath of office, ethics requirements for commissioners and a list of contractors who did business with the county near the time his wife purchased the Arkansas home.

The FBI previously confirmed it was investigating the circumstances of the home purchase, and a federal prosecutor had interviewed potential witnesses before a grand jury.

But a U.S. Supreme Court decision involving the Enron case last year raised the bar for prosecutors using a federal law that says public officials and business executives owe "honest services" to the public and employees.

Prosecutors now must show quid pro quo, or a clear connection that an official received something in exchange for a favor.

Mearline Norman's purchase of the Arkansas home was revealed during her husband's Senate campaign. His Republican primary opponent, Kevin Ambler, sued him for failing to disclose it on election papers.

Testimony revealed Mearline Norman bought the home with the help of $500,000 from Hughes.

A judge booted Norman from the ballot for failing to make the disclosure, but an appeals court reinstated him. He had already defeated Ambler in the primary and won the seat in November 2010.

Hughes was a recurring presence before commissioners, successfully promoting antitax and progrowth policies. Norman regularly backed that agenda and enjoyed longtime financial support from Hughes and his company, which made precast concrete for construction, during his political campaigns.

The Florida Commission on Ethics would not confirm Monday its own investigation. But George Niemann, a Dover civic activist who filed a complaint against Norman, said he'd been told the commission had assigned an investigator to his case. The commission was waiting, he said, for federal authorities to conclude their inquiry.

Niemann said when he learned last year that prosecutors had launched a probe of Norman, he thought: "It's about time."

After Monday's announcement, he said, "I'm disappointed it didn't turn out that way. But I'm hopeful we've still got the ethics charge pending. … It goes on his political resume."

Times reporter William R. Levesque and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Statement excerpts

"The fact that such an investigation was ongoing has been widely reported in the media. The decision on whether to file criminal charges is always a serious matter. The prosecution of a case is undertaken only after the most careful review and analysis of the evidence and applicable law. A diligent investigation by federal investigators failed to uncover evidence of a violation of federal criminal law by state Senator Norman. As a result, this office is closing the current investigation.

— U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill

"Throughout this investigation we have met numerous times with government officials handling the investigation and have been fully cooperative with them in offering to provide anything they wished to examine. Mr. and Mrs. Norman wish to express their appreciation for the straightforwardness of Mr. O'Neill in bringing this to a conclusion. Additionally, while they have always believed that Sen. Norman would be exonerated, the couple wishes to thank all who have continuously offered their friendship and support during this difficult time. Moving forward, the Senator will continue to dedicate his energies to serving the Tampa Bay community and his constituents before the Florida legislature."

— Attorney Frank Winkles on behalf of

Sen. Jim Norman

Feds close investigation of Sen. Jim Norman without bringing charges 11/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 21, 2011 10:49pm]
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