Norman case raises good questions about political spouses

Caesar's wife must be above suspicion. — Julius Caesar

Besides the entertainment value, this Jim Norman case in Hills­borough County poses two interesting questions.

First:

What should the rules be for business deals with the spouse of a politician?

Second:

If Norman was supposed to have disclosed a house that he claimed belonged to his wife, what's the right penalty?

Norman, a member of the Hillsborough County Commission, is running for the state Senate. He won his Republican primary in September and has only token opposition in November.

His Republican rival, Kevin Ambler, has filed a lawsuit accusing Norman of failing to disclose all of his financial dealings. In particular, there's a $435,000 house in Arkansas in the name of Norman's wife, along with two boats.

After Norman dragged his feet and claimed the house was his wife's private affair, the truth came out: The money came from Ralph Hughes, a longtime local power broker, now deceased.

Ambler, a state House member, claims Norman violated our Constitution and our law, which require a "full and public disclosure of financial interests." Therefore, Norman was never a legal candidate and Ambler won the election.

• • •

We should not say that every dollar of a spouse's business has to be disclosed. There are plenty of couples with independent business.

And yet, if we accept Norman's claim that everything about a spouse is "private," then we have open season for corruption.

The common-sense standard ought to be whether the spouse's dealings are related to the politician's status.

If I were the judge, I would rule that Norman had a duty to disclose. Hughes was hip-deep in the County Commission. He was a central figure in Hillsborough politics. If he was buying houses with, or for, the spouses of county commissioners, the public needed to know about it.

• • •

So what are we supposed to do about it? What if a candidate is merely mistaken in what to report? I dread the idea of opening every election to a lawsuit afterward.

But when a candidate so grossly and deliberately falls short of the "full and public" standard, then he or she has violated the Constitution and the law — and should be ruled never to have qualified. A $435,000 house deal with the kingmaker of Hillsborough politics ought to count.

This brings us to the remedy, and I don't like this part.

Earlier this year, two Democrats in Hillsborough, Linda Saul-Sena and John Dingfelder, failed to comply with the state's "resign to run" law. Yet the courts allowed the local Democratic Party to reselect them to fill the newly "vacant" nominations.

I think this was the wrong ruling. There was no "vacancy" to fill — because they never became valid candidates in the first place.

And neither did Jim Norman. Which means that the only legal candidate on the Republican ballot in September was Ambler, and heaven help us for that, because Ambler has voted for every stinky deal in Tallahassee as a member of the House.

Choose your poison, then, Mr. Buy-My-Wife-A-House, or Mr. Vote-To-Hurt-Florida.

The court holds its nose and rules for Mr. Vote-To-Hurt-Florida. Call the next case.

Norman case raises good questions about political spouses 10/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 8:55pm]

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