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New questions raised about Jim Norman's role in Arkansas house purchase

TAMPA — A newly filed court document contradicts Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman's prior assertion that he was not involved in his wife's purchase of a lakefront home in Arkansas.

Norman traveled with his wife, Mearline, in 2005 and 2006 to look at the house, according to an amended lawsuit filed by political rival Kevin Ambler.

Money from the couple's shared accounts was used for a deposit on the house, the suit says. Norman was at the closing. And more shared money was used to renovate the home and pay taxes and insurance, as recently as this summer.

Documents that Ambler obtained in the Tallahassee lawsuit also show that a now-deceased businessman and Norman supporter wrote a personal check into an account opened by Mearline Norman around the time she bought the house in March 2006. The documents don't identify the check writer, but one of Jim Norman's attorneys said last week that Hillsborough businessman Ralph Hughes provided much of the money that Mearline Norman used to buy the house.

And while Norman's attorney has described Hughes as an "investor," Ambler maintains this was a loan, not an investment.

"There is no investor agreement, and no documents describing how profits or losses would be accounted for," the lawsuit states.

Ambler, who sued a week after losing to Norman in the Aug. 24 Republican primary for a state Senate seat in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, is trying to prove Hughes loaned the money to the Normans, rather than invested it. That distinction is significant: If it was a loan, Norman did not list it as a liability in his campaign disclosure papers and is ineligible to run for the Senate, Ambler contends.

But it could take more than bank statements and signatures to persuade Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford to throw Norman off the ballot.

As Ambler's legal team fights to show that Hughes — whose construction materials business benefited from Norman's pro-growth votes — loaned the couple money, Norman's lawyers are seeking to prove he did not break election laws.

In court papers also filed this week, Norman's attorneys say Ambler conducted exhaustive discovery but came up empty-handed.

Hughes associate John Stanton did not testify, as Ambler had expected, that he had seen a $435,000 check to Norman. Nor, say the Norman attorneys, has Ambler proven there was a loan.

"Ambler is unable to show that any alleged loan existed and required disclosure," Norman's attorneys wrote. "The only liabilities that require disclosure are known, admitted, and quantifiable obligations. And that is exactly what is lacking here."

Also in dispute is the value of two boats the Normans acquired with the house. Ambler's team says they were worth more than $1,000 each and therefore should have been listed as assets. Norman's attorneys say the boats were more than 19 years old and were not even worth $1,000 combined.

A trial is set for Oct. 12. Attorneys on both sides have struck a confidentiality agreement that was approved by Fulford. In addition, some documents, and information in other documents, have been kept confidential. The attorneys said they want to be able to conduct full financial discovery without worrying about privacy issues.

Ryan Rodems, a Tampa Republican lawyer who is not involved with the case, said Ambler has an uphill battle to prove wrongdoing because the law calls for "clear and convincing proof." And even if he can prove Norman failed to disclose a loan from Hughes, the judge does not have to disqualify Norman — she can issue a reprimand, or a nominal fine.

The FBI is also investigating Norman's relationship with Hughes, a millionaire who was the subject of a federal tax investigation when he died in 2008.

In their motion for summary judgment, Norman's attorneys said Ambler is probing areas well beyond the Arkansas deal, with possible political motives.

"One can only surmise that the additional topics were designed to feed the continued onslaught of negative publicity toward defendant Norman," they wrote. Topics included whether Hughes' company, Cast-Crete, hired anyone to attempt to influence Norman's commission votes.

Norman was absent from Wednesday's County Commission meeting.

Hillsborough Republican Party chairman Deborah Cox-Roush would not discuss any contingency plans in case Norman is tossed off the ballot. There is no Democratic candidate for the seat and Norman faces only two write-ins in November.

Observers were divided on the question of whether Norman should withdraw from the race.

"I believe he should, but I'm a Democrat," said Elizabeth Belcher, who is active in east Hillsborough's Seffner Community Alliance.

Rodems, however, said, "If Jim Norman does not believe he did anything wrong, he should fight until the finish."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 624-2739 or sokol@sptimes.com.

New questions raised about Jim Norman's role in Arkansas house purchase 10/06/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 7, 2010 7:04am]
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