TAMPA — After months of questions and the launch of a federal investigation, Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman on Friday finally revealed that a prominent businessman and political activist was the investor in a lakefront Arkansas home purchased in 2006 by his wife, Mearline Norman.
Ralph Hughes, who died in 2008, invested in the $435,000 property with Mearline Norman, intending to profit from the booming real estate market, according to Frank Winkles, an attorney for the Normans.
Jim Norman faces two write-in candidates in next month's state Senate race in District 12, which includes northern Hillsborough and central Pasco counties.
Hughes owned Seffner-based Cast-Crete, a company that sells construction materials and benefited from the County Commission's pro-growth votes over the years. He also contributed heavily to Jim Norman's campaigns.
"Mearline Norman made her own business investment with Ralph Hughes, a man who had been her friend, mentor and adviser for 20 years," Winkles said. "She put over $100,000 of her own money into the investment and had put hundreds of hours of work into the investment. She and Mr. Hughes hoped to sell the investment property and make a profit until the real estate market went bad. This investment was her own private business."
Winkles did not disclose the extent of Hughes' investment in the house.
Since July, Norman has dodged questions about how Mearline, who does not work outside the home, was able to pay $435,000 for the house without a mortgage. He would say only that she had investors.
He finally named Hughes as an investor on the same day the St. Petersburg Times reported that John Stanton, Hughes' longtime business partner, said that shortly after Hughes' death the magnate's son asked for advice on getting back about $500,000 his father had given to the Normans "in some fashion."
Terry Flott, chairwoman of the United Citizens Action Network, a group that advocates stricter growth management, said she's outraged by Norman's revelation.
"I doubt Mrs. Norman would have had this same relationship if her husband wouldn't have been a commissioner," she said.
She's also angry Norman waited so long to reveal the Hughes connection.
"I'm absolutely furious that he would put something like this out at this stage in the game," she said. "It's wrong. I just don't know how they think this can be okay."
The source of the money for the Arkansas home lies at the heart of a lawsuit filed by Kevin Ambler, who lost the District 12 Republican primary to Norman. Mearline Norman gave a six-hour deposition Friday in Tallahassee.
Ambler wants the election results rejected and himself named the nominee.
He alleges that Norman violated a state law requiring candidates to report all assets and liabilities to qualify for election and therefore should not have been on the primary ballot.
According to Ambler, Norman failed to reveal a debt to Hughes.
But Winkles said Ambler is wrong and Jim Norman wasn't involved in the cash purchase of the Arkansas house.
"Jim got none of the money," Winkles said.
Ambler also contends that Norman should have reported two boats purchased with the house. Norman is listed on the boats' titles. State law requires candidates to disclose any assets worth more than $1,000.
Norman has said he would amend his financial disclosures to include the boats if necessary.
But Winkles said Norman's state-required elections paperwork was in order and he won the primary "fair and square."
"He followed all the rules and abided by the law," Winkles said. "This lawsuit and the accusations are baseless and an attempt to stop an election the other side could not win at the ballot box."
Meanwhile, the relationship between Norman and Hughes is the subject of an FBI investigation.
Hughes' widow, Betty, said Friday that she and Hughes' son, Shea, have been ordered to testify before a grand jury on the matter. But she said she didn't know anything about any gift or loan made by her late husband to the Normans.
She disputed statements made Thursday by Stanton, saying he is incorrect and Shea Hughes never spoke to him about the money. Shea Hughes could not be reached for comment.
After Hughes' death, Norman pressed to have the county's Moral Courage Award named after Hughes. A year later, Hughes' name was removed from the award after the IRS filed claims against his estate, saying Hughes died owing $300 million in taxes and penalties.
A Leon County judge is set to consider Oct. 12 whether Norman can run for the state Senate in November.
The possible outcomes are almost endless. Lawyers not connected to the case expect that Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford's decision will be appealed, regardless of how she rules.
If Norman prevails, he will remain on the November ballot. Should he lose his seat after the election, the governor will order a special election, said Craig Latimer, chief of staff for the Hillsborough County supervisor of elections.
If Fulford disqualifies Norman, she will determine the next steps, Latimer said.
Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, though, said Norman should just "bow out of his race and save himself and his wife a lot of grief."
"Jim Norman ought to be ashamed of himself for using his wife in such a way," she said. "Our county does not deserve this kind of representation. It degrades public office. Public office is a public trust. Obviously, that didn't sink in to Jim Norman."
Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.