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Ambler tells of Jim Norman's betting with Ralph Hughes

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman and businessman Ralph Hughes gambled together and swapped envelopes of cash for each other's bets, according to a sworn statement released Friday.

Kevin Ambler, who sued Norman after losing to him in a Republican state Senate primary, testified Oct. 7 that Norman discussed bets and sports odds with Hughes. An antitax activist, Hughes ran a building materials company before he died in 2008.

Ambler said he vaguely recalled seeing envelopes of cash exchanged. "From the comments said, it was to place a bet or ... 'Here's your winnings' kind of thing," he said.

Norman's attorney called Ambler's testimony a complete lie.

The voluminous transcripts also revealed that Norman sought advice from county attorneys about his wife's venture, which used $500,000 of Hughes' money. Norman has maintained he knew little about their purchase of a lakefront house in Arkansas. In his conversations with county attorneys, he said he did not reveal Hughes was the source of funds.

He said he was advised that "if no one did business before the board directly to receive gain, then my wife was fine to do all the investments she wants."

Ambler's attorney then asked if Hughes benefited from the County Commission's votes on growth policies.

Norman's lawyers quickly told him not to answer. An argument ensued and, soon after, they ended the deposition.

In addition to being at the heart of a ground-breaking election lawsuit, the Norman-Hughes relationship is also the subject of an FBI investigation. Hughes' son, Shea, said he has been ordered to appear before a federal grand jury.

The depositions, along with last week's court testimony in Tallahassee, have provided a window into Norman's friendship with Hughes. They also reveal much about his relationship with Ambler, a lawyer and state representative who Norman considered a friend until the two went after the same Senate seat representing north Hillsborough and central Pasco counties.

"At some point he became, as you can see, a vast enemy," Norman testified. He also called Ambler "very devious" and "back-stabbing."

His relationship with Hughes was different. The two spoke once or twice a day, but Norman did not remember meeting Hughes' wife until his funeral.

Ambler, in his deposition, said the two other men shared an interest in gambling.

"There were occasions when I think Ralph placed bets for Jim through his bookie, and I think there were times when Jim placed bets for Ralph through his bookie, and I was present on occasion when both of those things happened," he said.

He added that he believes Norman has a gambling problem. "He certainly gambles excessively," Ambler said. "... Jim Norman keeps a sheet in his pocket. He bets on every single college football game, every single pro football game, baseball game. These are the three main ones."

This isn't the first time gambling has been an issue for Norman. In 1999, reporters found him in a Las Vegas sports betting room, and learned a medical equipment salesman with county interests had arranged his stay.

On Friday, Norman attorney Frank Winkles said his client has no bookie.

"These statements are malicious, false, and if you print them, they will open you up to all kinds of problems," he said. "There are no lengths to which Ambler will not go to fabricate things."

As evidence of Ambler's lack of credibility, Winkles said Ambler told reporters this summer that he had no information about the Arkansas house.

Yet in court last week, Ambler described two conversations he had with Norman before and after the 2006 purchase. In fact, he said, Norman asked for advice on how to title the house to protect his interest.

"You can't believe him at all," Winkles said. Norman, in court, called Ambler a liar.

Ambler, for his part, has said he considered his conversation with Norman protected by attorney-client privilege — until the day Norman gave his deposition. When asked if he had an attorney-client relationship with Ambler regarding the house, Norman said he was not aware of any.

In his testimony, Ambler also articulated a rumor that has circulated about Norman's $95,000 a year job as community liaison for the Salvation Army.

Ambler said, "I had heard — I guess a better word is 'learned' ... that Ralph (Hughes) was paying the Salvation Army $100,000 a year in contributions which were, in turn, used for Jim Norman's salary."

Ambler said he had no documentation, and had never investigated the rumor, "but it didn't smell right."

The Salvation Army, which is watching Norman's case and could re-evaluate his employment as a result, looked into the allegation and found no evidence of any contribution from Hughes or his company, Cast-Crete.

"We've gone back 10 years," development director Steve Dick said. "It would be against Salvation Army policies to accept such a gift" tied to someone's employment, he said.

Winkles said Dick's response was further evidence of Ambler's dishonesty.

A deposition was also given by Mearline Norman, who revealed that the Arkansas house was listed initially at $600,000. An early offer from Hughes was rejected, she said. Eventually, they paid $435,000, along with another $95,000 for boats, trailers and furnishings. Norman stayed in the parking lot during the closing, she said.

An attorney asked Mearline Norman if she reported Hughes' $500,000 contribution to the property on her income tax after he died. "No," she said.

She also testified that, though the couple used about $100,000 in shared funds to purchase and improve the property, she did not believe her husband had an interest in it.

Technically, Norman is no longer a candidate for the Senate seat. Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford disqualified him last week. Since then, Norman has filed an appeal and the Republican Party has begun the process of replacing him in a race that has no Democrat.

Ambler on Friday responded to the appeal, asking to be named the nominee in Norman's place. "Since Norman failed to meet the standards for qualification, he was not a candidate at the close of the qualifying period," Ambler's attorney wrote. "As a result of that disqualification, Ambler became the only candidate of the Republican Party qualified for the office."

Oral arguments are scheduled for Tuesday, a week before Election Day. Also on Tuesday, Shea Hughes is to appear before the grand jury, he said.

Staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this story. Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com.

Ambler tells of Jim Norman's betting with Ralph Hughes 10/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 22, 2010 10:27pm]
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