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Lawsuit, ethics complaint allege late businessman bankrolled Norman home

TAMPA — In the past two weeks, both a lawsuit and an ethics complaint have alleged that the late businessman Ralph Hughes bankrolled an Arkansas home for Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman.

Norman wasn't talking Wednesday. But the St. Petersburg Times asked him twice in July if he accepted money for the house from Hughes, who benefitted over the years from the county's pro-development decisions.

Norman said no.

When asked if his wife, the sole owner of the home, received money from Hughes, he refused to answer.

"My wife and her business partners can have dealings with anyone they choose to," he said.

The FBI is now investigating the origin of the $435,000 used to buy the house.

On Aug. 24, Norman beat state Rep. Kevin Ambler in the Republican primary for the District 12 state Senate seat. He faces two write-in candidates in November for the seat representing north Hillsborough and central Pasco counties.

Ambler this week sued Norman and election officials, claiming Norman was not eligible to run because he didn't list on financial disclosure forms two boats that were included with the purchase of the Arkansas house. The suit also claims that Norman received a $435,000 loan from Hughes shortly before his wife bought the house.

A complaint filed with the Florida Elections Commission days before the Aug. 24 primary made the same allegations. The commission rejected the complaint because state rules don't allow cases to be filed against candidates within five days of an election.

Records show that Norman's wife, who does not work outside the home, paid $435,000 cash for the house in 2006.

Although Mearline Norman is listed as the sole owner of the property, Jim Norman has said his wife bought it with investors.

But he has declined to name them, saying that what his wife does is her business.

"She doesn't get into my County Commission business and I don't get into her stuff," he told the Times in July.

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. In mid 2009, the IRS filed a court claim against Hughes' trust for unpaid income taxes, interest and penalties for 2003 through 2007.

Beginning in the 1980s, Hughes was a frequent speaker before the Hillsborough County Commission, railing against taxes in general as well as impact fees assessed on new construction.

In 2000, the commission voted to abolish impact fees in some communities, with Norman pushing hard for the waivers.

That paid off for Hughes.

He ended up selling building materials for two huge subdivisions slated for 3,000 homes in one of the impact fee free zones in southeastern Hillsborough.

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.

State records show Norman received about $2,000 from Hughes and his son's company, Sunrise Landcare, shortly after announcing his Senate run and just two months before Hughes died.

Norman led the charge to name the county's Moral Courage Award after Hughes shortly after the Seffner businessman's death. In making his pitch, Norman pointed out that Hughes pressed to have the county attorney report to commissioners and for the creation of a county internal performance auditor.

"These are good-government issues that he fought for," Norman said at the time, calling Hughes a "man of integrity"

Less than a year later, Hughes' name was removed from the award at the family's request when the IRS filed its claim against his estate.

Times staff writers Sue Carlton and Bill Varian contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Lawsuit, ethics complaint allege late businessman bankrolled Norman home 09/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 2, 2010 12:36am]
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