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Norman aide remains on payroll despite tax charges

Federal charges of failing to file income tax returns won't keep state Sen. Jim Norman's chief of staff from continuing to serve in that role.

Norman, R-Tampa, who faced his own federal investigation last year over the circumstances of his wife's Arkansas home purchase, said this week that he has no plans to remove or suspend aide Ben Kelly.

"It's a personal matter," Norman said. "I'm praying for him."

Kelly, 55, faces five counts of failing to file tax returns for five straight tax years ending in 2010, a case that spun off from the investigation into the Norman home purchase.

He declined to comment.

Legislators are generally free to hire and retain whomever they wish for their staffs. But keeping a chief of staff facing federal tax charges could open up another line of attack from election opponents for an incumbent who is already vulnerable to questions about his decisionmaking.

So far, Norman faces a Republican primary challenge from party activist and homeland security consultant John Korsak in his re-election bid this year. He has said he is running in part because Tallahassee needs "less cronyism and more people of character."

Korsak had no comment for this story other than to say "it's par for the course."

Norman still faces a state ethics case relating to the 2006 purchase of a lakefront Arkansas home. The home was acquired with the help of what the Normans say was a $500,000 gift from late businessman Ralph Hughes, a longtime political benefactor.

Norman was a Hillsborough County commissioner at the time, and Hughes regularly appeared before that board to argue for lower taxes and fees.

Norman claimed he had no knowledge of what he has said was a business investment between his wife, Mearline, and Hughes. In fact, he said Hughes told him to mind his own business when Norman inquired about the investment.

A state judge found that explanation implausible in ordering Norman off the ballot for failing to report the gift on a required state disclosure form when he first ran for Senate in 2010. However, that decision was overturned and Norman won election.

The federal investigation was dropped when prosecutors concluded they could not prove conclusively that the gift constituted a crime, which Norman has held up as an exoneration.

However, the Florida Commission on Ethics has found probable cause that Norman should have disclosed the gift, something he has challenged. He has also held up that finding as vindication since the ethics commission failed to find against him on accusations that the gift presented him with a conflict of interest.

Norman served 18 years as a county commissioner before running for the Senate. Kelly was his aide for 14 of them and joined Norman when he moved to the Senate. The two are good friends, regularly attending social and sporting events together.

The indictment against him accuses Kelly of failing to file tax returns from 2006 through 2010, though he made from $76,738 to $108,037 annually during those years, including his pay as Norman's aide and as a campaign employee.

Senate leaders named Norman chairman of that chamber's finance and tax committee the same day Kelly's indictment was unsealed.

"I'm not surprised," said George Niemann, one of at least four people who filed ethics complaints against Norman over the $500,000 his wife accepted from Hughes, speaking about his decision to retain Kelly. "I think that it's not just mere coincidence that the senator is up on ethics charges and his senior aide, who's been with him all these years, gets indicted."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@tampabay.com.

Norman aide remains on payroll despite tax charges 02/11/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2012 9:17pm]
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