TAMPA — A longtime business associate of the late Ralph Hughes said Thursday that Hughes' son asked him for advice on getting back money his father had given Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman.
"He was really calling me for guidance," said John Stanton, president of Hughes' company, Cast-Crete, since 1987.
Stanton said Shea Hughes called him about two months after his father's June 2008 death asking for information on about $500,000 his father had given to Norman.
The Hughes family, Stanton said, "discovered something in Ralph's records about this transaction."
"The impression I had is that they wanted the money back," Stanton said.
Hughes' money lies at the heart of a lawsuit filed by Kevin Ambler, who lost to Norman in the Republican primary for the state Senate District 12 seat in August.
Ambler is seeking to prove that Norman was not qualified to run and that he should be the nominee instead.
Ambler is resting his case on Norman's financial disclosure filings. He contends that Norman failed to reveal that he owned two boats in Arkansas. The boats were part of a $435,000 Arkansas home purchase in 2006 by Norman's wife that, Ambler claims, was financed by Hughes. The $435,000 loan should have been listed as a liability on Norman's state-required financial disclosure, he contends.
Norman, who did not respond to calls for comment Thursday, has neither confirmed nor denied that the money came from Hughes. The relationship between Norman and Hughes has attracted the FBI's attention.
Stanton said he hasn't spoken to federal authorities, but did give a deposition Thursday in the Ambler case.
He didn't reveal details of his testimony, citing a confidentiality agreement between attorneys in the case. But he said when he spoke to Hughes' son two years ago, he told him he couldn't help.
Stanton said he never saw any documentation of a gift or loan from Hughes to Norman, and never discussed it with Hughes.
"I have no idea what Ralph intended," he said.
All he knows for sure is that the money didn't come from Cast-Crete.
Asked if he thought the transaction occurred, he said: "How confident can you be of anything you haven't seen? I got a call from his family and I don't think they would have called me if they hadn't seen something."
Stanton said if Hughes did give the money to Norman, he did it with the best of intentions.
"Ralph thought of Norman as a son," said Stanton, who said he met Norman only a few times when he was with Hughes. "Why Jim Norman would have accepted the money or given it to his wife, I don't know."
Around 1987, when Stanton took over the day-to-day operation of Cast-Crete, Hughes become involved in politics, contributing heavily to candidates who shared his antitax, small government views.
Over the years, Hughes, his relatives and business associates — including Stanton — contributed heavily to Norman's election campaigns, directing at least $15,000 to Norman for his 2002 and 2006 commission races.
Norman received about $2,000 from Hughes and his son's landscaping business shortly after announcing his Senate run, state records show.
After Hughes' death, Norman pressed to have the county's Moral Courage Award named after him. A year later, his name was removed from the award after the IRS filed claims against the Hughes estate, saying he died owing $300 million in corporate and income taxes and penalties.
Although Seffner-based Cast-Crete, which makes construction materials, benefited from Norman's pro-development votes over the years, Stanton said the company's work in Hillsborough was just 2 percent of its business.
A judge is set to consider on Oct. 12 whether Norman can appear on the November ballot for the District 12 seat. The district includes north Hillsborough and central Pasco counties
As testimony gets underway, Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford is also being asked to rule on how much the public can know about Norman's family finances.
Attorneys for Norman and Ambler have argued about how much information Norman and his wife must produce, and whether some of it can be protected by a confidentiality agreement.
Fulford ruled Wednesday that Norman's wife, Mearline, does not have to produce past wage statements and tax returns. The Normans also don't have to produce joint tax returns from 2005 and 2006 unless depositions prove the information is relevant.
But Norman wants more protection. He filed a motion Wednesday asking that records Ambler's team had requested relating to money the couple might have received from Hughes or to the purchase of the Arkansas house be stored in a confidential file.
Fulford said Thursday she would decide on a case-by-case basis which documents to keep confidential.
Ambler attorney Mark Herron said he will ask Fulford to reconsider her decision concerning Mearline Norman's tax returns.
Times staff writer Bill Varian and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.