TAMPA — Jim Norman should be tossed from the ballot for state Senate for not disclosing a half-million dollar gift from an influential businessman, a Tallahassee judge ruled Friday.
In a scathing order recapping a case she said was without precedent, Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford ruled that the Hillsborough commissioner intentionally deceived the public when he failed to disclose Ralph Hughes' $500,000 contribution toward a lakefront home in Arkansas.
Fulford said Norman's explanation about the house, which was titled to his wife, Mearline, was "patently absurd."
Disavowing involvement in the deal, she wrote, showed that "his obligation to promote the public interest and maintain the respect of the people in their government was not only not the foremost concern, but of no concern to Jim Norman at all."
Norman's Tampa lawyer, Frank Winkles, said his client will appeal, creating even more uncertainty in a situation that has befuddled voters who already are casting ballots.
Election officials said they are waiting to see the results of the appeals process. Another defeat for Norman could result in a replacement being chosen by local Republican Party leaders, perhaps even Norman himself.
The race has no Democratic candidate, just two write-ins who have not mounted any visible campaigns.
Norman's opponent, state Rep. Kevin Ambler, sued him on Aug. 31, a week after losing the District 12 race to represent northern Hillsborough and central Pasco.
Weeks of court filings culminated in a 14-hour trial Tuesday that explored Norman's friendship with Hughes, his onetime friendship with Ambler and the financial workings of the Norman marriage.
Ambler testified that Norman told him about the Arkansas house before and after his wife bought it in 2006, describing it as a "dream house" where the couple might one day retire. Norman even asked for advice on how to title it if he bought it with someone else's money, Ambler said.
Norman called the testimony "an absolute lie," saying the conversations never happened. He said the house was merely a business venture between his wife and Hughes, a close family friend.
Hughes, who died in 2008, ran a Seffner building materials company and was a strong advocate of pro-growth policies, appearing repeatedly before the County Commission. The relationship between Hughes and Norman is now the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation.
Mearline Norman described a 50-50 partnership between herself and Hughes that had no documentation, and a bank account that Hughes had instructed her to open with a $500,000 check. She and Norman both insisted the commissioner was not involved, even though he traveled several times to the Arkansas house.
Fulford made it clear in her ruling that she didn't buy the story.
"Jim Norman, as a county commissioner, has been responsible for assisting with billion dollar budgets," Fulford wrote. "He testified that he goes 'door to door' to assist the citizens of Hillsborough County.
"And yet, he asks this court to believe that his wife was involved in the purchase of an asset that was valued at more than three and a half times their own home. … And he knew absolutely nothing about it."
Fulford was swayed not just by the implausibility of their explanation, she wrote, but also by the Normans' "long pauses and hesitation before answering, looks of confusion or bewilderment and, at times, even anger … and the inability of a witness to complete even the simple task of locating documents."
She also cited the state gift law, which forbids spouses of public officials from accepting anything of value from citizens seeking influence.
While Ambler succeeded in having Norman removed from the ballot — at least for now — he did not accomplish his goal of having himself declared the nominee.
Fulford was vague about replacing Norman on the ballot, writing simply that the state Division of Elections will issue "a neutral, evenhanded, plain and concise factual notice" at polling places.
Early voting begins Monday in both Hillsborough and Pasco counties, and tens of thousands of absentee ballots already have been mailed out.
Election officials said Friday night they were still reviewing the judge's order, which was issued late in the day. And they are waiting to see what develops in court.
"We can't act until the litigation is complete," said Jennifer Davis, a Florida Secretary of State spokeswoman.
State law allows a political party to appoint a replacement if a candidate is removed from the ballot. In some cases, once the candidate corrects an election-related problem, the party can appoint the same person.
"I certainly think it will come up in the conversation," said Bill Bunting, state committeeman for the Pasco County Republican Party. "(Norman's) the one who won it fair and square as far as I'm concerned." He also expects Ambler to seek the nomination.
A broader issue is whether Ambler's lawsuit could lead to similar challenges based on mistakes in the qualifying papers.
Some don't think so, as the Norman case represents far more than sloppy paperwork.
"A glitch is you forgot to have your form notarized or didn't do the math right," said Tallahassee elections attorney Ron Meyer, who noted the Arkansas home was Norman's single biggest asset.
Darryl Paulson, a retired political science professor from the University of South Florida, agreed the Norman case is "a unique circumstance," although he added that "all it does is reinforce the belief of voters in Florida that this is typical behavior of politicians."
It is also unclear how much long-term political damage Norman will suffer. He enjoyed great popularity among party leaders during his campaign.
Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Republican who had endorsed Norman, said this on Friday: "It is my understanding that this case is going to be appealed and it would be premature for me to comment until we know the ultimate outcome."