TALLAHASSEE — Lawyers for Jim Norman told the 1st District Court of Appeal on Tuesday that he was improperly removed from the ballot over a house his wife owns in Arkansas.
A Tallahassee circuit judge ruled this month that Norman, a Hillsborough commissioner running for the state Senate, should have listed the house on a financial disclosure form because it was an "indirect gift" from contributor Ralph Hughes.
Hughes, a millionaire who died in 2008 while under a federal tax probe, was a close friend of Norman's who operated a Seffner building materials company. He was also an antitax activist who appeared frequently before the commission, and supported its progrowth policies. The FBI is also investigating Norman's relationship with Hughes.
The Oct. 15 ruling removed Norman from Tuesday's election, where he would have faced only write-in opposition. In his place, the Republican Party selected former state Rep. Rob Wallace, who would serve unless Norman prevails with the appeal. There is no Democrat in the race.
But Norman attorney Barry Richard told the appellate court that losing candidate Kevin Ambler should have filed his lawsuit before the Aug. 24 Republican primary.
"He chose to sit back and wait to see who won the election before he filed this lawsuit, the result being the disenfranchisement of voters and the disruption of the election process," Richard said.
Ambler's attorneys say he wasn't aware of the "level of corruption" behind the house purchase and that Ambler learned the facts only a couple of days before the primary election, when a citizen filed a state ethics complaint.
"He knew that they owned a house in Arkansas," said Ambler lawyer Gary Early. "He didn't have any knowledge of the source of the funds. He didn't have any knowledge as to whether or not Jim Norman's funds had been used in the house. He didn't really know much about it."
The court could issue a ruling as soon as today, and the losing side could fast-track an appeal to the state Supreme Court. That court can either take the case or simply uphold the ruling by the appeals court.
The lawsuit has created uncertainty in Senate District 12, which includes northern Hillsborough and central Pasco counties. Some people have already voted for Norman on absentee or early ballots. Polling sites now have a sign saying a vote for Norman will count as a vote for the Republican candidate.
"An unsuccessful candidate can just wait and see how the election comes out, and then decide to pursue this," Judge Nikki Ann Clark said during Tuesday's hearing. "Doesn't that kind of throw everything into chaos?"
Early said an "obvious" defect, such as a missing financial disclosure form, should be challenged before an election. But he said Norman's failure to list the house was nearly impossible to detect without a trial.
Ambler's lawyers also argued Tuesday that he should have been named to the ballot, instead of allowing the party to select a replacement.
A lawyer for the Republican Party of Florida argued that once Ambler lost the primary, he was no longer a candidate and that the party was required to choose Norman's replacement.
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.