TAMPA — Salvation Army officials said this week that donors are complaining about embattled Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman being on the charity's payroll.
And they acknowledged his $95,000 job as statewide community liaison might be affected.
"We are waiting to see what happens in the appeal or the election," Salvation Army Maj. Larry Broome said.
That marks the first time the Salvation Army has wavered in its support for Norman, an 18-year commissioner who has worked at the charity for 31 years. Previously, the organization voiced strong support for him and criticized his political opponent for raising questions about his employment there.
Norman is appealing a Tallahassee judge's decision last week to disqualify him as a state Senate candidate. Republican rival Kevin Ambler sued Norman after losing to him in the primary, claiming Norman failed to disclose an Arkansas property that his wife bought with $500,000 from influential businessman Ralph Hughes.
The FBI also is investigating the connection between Norman and Hughes, who died in 2008 while under a federal tax probe.
Questions about Norman's employment at the Salvation Army arose during the heated primary election campaign. The charity pays him $95,000 a year and provides a car for work that Norman said is done largely on weekends.
When asked for specifics about the job, both Norman and the Salvation Army were vague. Norman described himself as largely a "troubleshooter" who smooths the way when communities have problems with Salvation Army programs, but he would not give examples.
The Salvation Army, after weeks of being questioned, issued two written statements in Norman's defense. One of the statements also expressed indignation at Ambler's "partisan political agenda."
The charity has stood by Norman through other times of political turbulence. In 1999, reporters found Norman in a sports betting room in Las Vegas, where he enjoyed a discounted room rate arranged by David Bekhor. A medical equipment salesman, Bekhor was trying to do business with Tampa General Hospital. A federal grand jury investigated Bekhor's relationship with Norman. That probe closed with no indictment.
The current controversy has led former donors to say they will no longer stuff bills into red kettles or drop off donations at neighborhood centers.
"We've had donors who have responded back to us and have told us that pending resolving of the situation, they're not going to support the Salvation Army," said Steve Dick, the charity's development director. "Basically, we listen to them. We understand their frustration."
Attorneys for the charity, which operates from a state headquarters building on Van Dyke Road in Lutz, are watching Norman's situation "quite closely," he said. The Salvation Army will make a decision on Norman's employment once it is resolved, Dick said.
With the holiday season approaching, it is unclear how collections might be affected. "Obviously, what concerns us is the people that are not going to be helped, the people we serve," Dick said.
At least a dozen readers sent letters or e-mails to the Times expressing their disappointment in the charity's handling of the Norman issue.
"I give to everybody — Salvation Army, Goodwill," said Alan Jankowski, 62, who lives in the north Hillsborough Senate district Norman hopes to represent.
So will he continue to give? "I wouldn't donate to Salvation Army. I'm not saying forever, but it would not be appropriate." Thinking it over, he added, "I might volunteer."
In Hudson, 67-year-old Ronald DeVore said he was aghast at the size of Norman's salary, and at the posh office buildings that reminded him of the Taj Mahal. "It makes you wonder how much of the money actually goes to the people in need," he said. "It just goes down the wrong way to me."
A longtime supporter of the Salvation Army, he said he now returns their solicitation letters. "I say, send them to Jim Norman," he said. "He has more money than I do."
Confidence in a charity's ethics is important, said Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy.
He said the Norman situation raises several concerns. He wondered how Norman could work full time at the Salvation Army while holding public office.
"It would be doubtful to me, unless he were Superman," he said. "I know people in nonprofit organizations. They mostly work very hard and are taxed with many responsibilities and duties. They would not have time to take an extra full-time job."
To weather the Norman controversy without a serious dip in collections, Borochoff said, the organization needs to be forthcoming in its rules and policies on dual employment.
"It's important for a charity to have a degree of transparency and ethics, so people can feel that they can trust they can give them their money," he said.
"If (the Norman scandal) has had widespread coverage, people will associate it with the Salvation Army, and it will taint the Salvation Army, fairly or unfairly."