Investigators likely have many questions for Jim Norman, attorneys say

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman's attorney answered one big question Friday when he acknowledged publicly for the first time that, yes, industrialist Ralph Hughes put up much of the money that Norman's wife, Mearline, used to buy a lakefront home in Arkansas.

But there are surely many more to come, criminal defense attorneys said Saturday.

"At least for the moment, there are too many unanswered questions to say whether this is a crime or is not a crime," Tampa defense attorney Eddie Suarez said.

Norman, the Republican nominee in the race for state Senate District 12, which includes parts of Hillsborough and Pasco counties, faces a lawsuit from his primary challenger, Kevin Ambler, and an FBI investigation into his close relationship with Hughes, who died in 2008.

Ambler contends that Norman was unqualified to run because he did not list a debt to Hughes on his state-required financial disclosure form.

But Norman's attorney, Frank Winkles, said Friday that Hughes invested in the $435,000 property strictly with Mrs. Norman, who bought the house in 2006.

Mearline Norman put $100,000 of her own money and hundreds of hours of work into the investment, Winkles said.

The questions that Suarez and other attorneys said FBI agents are likely pursuing include:

• How was Hughes' investment in the purchase of the home documented? Was there a promissory note or mortgage? An absence of documentation would make the loan look more suspicious, Suarez said.

• What were the terms for repayment? What was Mrs. Norman's credit like? Why was the loan made exclusively to her, and what did she tell her husband about it?

• If the home was purchased as an investment, did Mrs. Norman list it for sale or hire a real estate agent to market it? Or did the Normans use it as a second home?

They did not, Winkles said Saturday. "It was never used as a second home."

In July, a neighbor told the St. Petersburg Times that she had never seen anyone but the Normans at the house. Mrs. Norman was there more than her husband, Elisabeth Lawrence said, and spent her most recent visit doing yard work.

A confidentiality agreement in the lawsuit prevented Winkles from commenting on the questions other lawyers raised, he said.

"I don't see how anybody can have an opinion until they know all the facts," he said.

But Winkles suggested that Mrs. Norman addressed each issue in a six-hour deposition she gave Friday.

"All of that is covered in the deposition," he said. "Under the agreement, I cannot comment on that right now. All those things are answered."

To investigators, a main issue will be why Hughes put up the money, something that could be hard to determine after his death, attorneys said.

"The key question is going to be whether or not the money was paid for a simple real estate investment or to influence public acts," said defense attorney John Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor.

Hughes owned Cast-Crete, a company in Seffner that sells construction materials, and he spent years advocating against taxes and for a regulatory environment that would let developers thrive.

Friday's revelation that Hughes helped bankroll the investment came after months of evasive answers from Norman about the source of the money.

To former federal prosecutor Stephen Crawford, that's disturbing regardless of what becomes of the FBI investigation.

Hughes was a major player politically, Crawford said, and "this is the type of information that voters need to know."

"It concerns me that Commissioner Norman went out of his way to make sure this information was not on his disclosure form," he said.

Investigators likely have many questions for Jim Norman, attorneys say 10/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 2, 2010 11:41pm]

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