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State Sen. Jim Norman won't fight ethics charges, admits he should have disclosed gift

TALLAHASSEE — State Sen. Jim Norman has decided not to fight ethics allegations that he failed to disclose a $500,000 gift to his wife from a prominent Hillsborough County businessman, instead signing an admission of guilt.

Now the Florida Commission on Ethics must decide whether to accept the settlement. If it does, a Senate committee will decide on a penalty, which could be a fine, reprimand or removal from office.

Norman said he signed the agreement weeks ago, but the news broke Friday.

Earlier this month the ethics panel found probable cause to show Norman, R-Tampa, should have disclosed the gift when he ran for Senate in 2010.

The commission dismissed three other complaints that alleged that the gift created a conflict of interest.

Ralph Hughes, former owner of a construction supply company named Caste-Crete, gave the money to Mearline Norman when her husband was a county commissioner in 2006. She used it to buy a house in Arkansas. Norman said they didn't let him in on any of the details. Hughes died in 2008.

The gift was the subject of a federal criminal investigation, which found no wrongdoing.

Norman's lawyer, Mark Levine, said he wanted to fight the ethics accusations in trial. He said elected officials only need to report gifts to a spouse or relative under state law if they come from a lobbyist, which Hughes was not.

"I said, 'Look, Jim, I can win this,' " Levine said.

But Norman wasn't interested.

The accusations have dogged him for more than a year. He wanted it to be over.

"Jim has been working so hard up here for the Tampa Bay area. And he's been so distracted by this constant, constant stuff that keeps coming at him about this Hughes deal with his wife. It would be six or eight or 10 months before it's resolved," Levine said. "He said, 'I don't want to do all that.' "

Senate President Mike Haridopolos recently faced the ethics commission, too. In 2010, the panel found probable cause to charge him with failing to file financial disclosure documents for five years.

The Senate president also admitted guilt. But the Senate committee charged with punishing him decided not to fine him because he owned up to the mistake.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com.

State Sen. Jim Norman won't fight ethics charges, admits he should have disclosed gift 02/24/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 24, 2012 11:58pm]
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