TALLAHASSEE — A state ethics panel found Sen. Jim Norman should be prosecuted in connection with a half-million-dollar gift to his wife from a prominent Hillsborough County businessman.
The Florida Commission on Ethics ruled Friday that there was probable cause to show Norman should have disclosed the "investment" when he ran for Senate, and failed to do so.
Norman declared victory anyway; The commission dismissed three other complaints that alleged that the gift created a conflict of interest.
"All the serious charges were dropped and cleared, and I'm very happy about that," Norman said. "Basically it's a reporting issue."
That's not how George Niemann sees it.
As one of a few people who filed complaints in the matter, Niemann, of Dover, was allowed into the closed-door ethics hearing. He called the decision a "moral victory."
"Even though it may not violate every law ... is this the way we want our politicians to act?" he said. "We all know what he did."
The trouble stems from what Norman calls a "business transaction" between his wife and a friend, political benefactor Ralph Hughes, when he was a county commissioner in 2006. Mearline Norman used the $500,000 Hughes gave her to buy a lakefront Arkansas home.
The plan was to eventually sell the house and split the profits, said Mark Levine, Norman's lawyer. Hughes has since died.
Levine said he told the panel Norman didn't need to disclose the gift. Elected officials only need to report gifts to a spouse or relative under state law if they come from a lobbyist, he said. Hughes was not a lobbyist.
Norman eventually filed those forms but only out of an abundance of caution, Levine said.
"In fact, Sen. Norman had virtually no knowledge of the transaction," Levine said. "And when he even inquired about it to Mr. Hughes, Mr. Hughes told him it was none of his business."
"He said, 'Look, Jim, butt out,' " Norman said.
If the gift was not improper, why couldn't Norman be involved?
Again, Norman said, caution.
"(Hughes) did not want any perception of wrongdoing," Norman said. "He was a very smart, good man."
The commission apparently didn't buy it.
Nor were its members convinced by Levine's insistence that the statute wording made the charge moot, said Niemann, recounting their discussion.
Niemann said at one point one commissioner rolled her eyes.
"They just found it incredulous," Niemann said.
Norman's lawyer described it as a "lively debate" with lots of good questions.
Initially, someone made a motion for no further action against Norman, but it was voted down.
The second motion, to find probable cause, was approved on a split vote, Levine said.
"Why the commission voted what it did today, I have no idea," Levine said.
Norman's lawyer had hoped the ruling could be the "final nail in the coffin" in a controversy that has dogged his client for a year and a half.
Now, Levine says he and Norman will have to keep fighting.
"If we have to try the case," he said, "that's what we'll do."
That's just one option. They may also be able to settle with an ethics commission prosecutor, which could mean admitting guilt and possibly paying a fine.
The ruling came a few months after the U.S. Attorney's Office dropped a criminal case involving the home purchase, and just days after Norman was promoted to chairman of the Finance & Tax Committee by Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
Haridopolos has faced the ethics commission himself. In 2010, the panel found probable cause to charge him with failing to file financial disclosure documents for five years.
The Senate president admitted guilt. But a Senate committee charged with punishing him decided not to fine him because he owned up to the mistake.
Norman, too, says he's learned from the experience.
"Every elected official," Norman said, "needs to thoroughly look anywhere where their families may have investments."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected]