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Norman saga brought intense glare to charity

State Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, and his wife, Mearline, whose home thrust him into the news.

Times files (2010)

State Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, and his wife, Mearline, whose home thrust him into the news.

From its Virginia headquarters all the way down to Tampa, Salvation Army officials were following the story of Jim Norman.

The longtime Hillsborough County commissioner was making embarrassing headlines with the news that his wife's vacation home in Arkansas had been bankrolled by a wealthy political activist. The FBI was investigating. A rival was suing to get him off the ballot for higher office.

But even as that story unfolded, Norman's other job had people seeing red. The Salvation Army, with its image as a bell-ringing charity for the needy, was paying the commissioner $95,000 a year and providing him with a free car.

As the holiday giving season got under way, fake dollar bills printed with Norman's face turned up in Salvation Army kettles. Donations dropped. Salvation Army officials blamed the economy, but acknowledged the Norman news "probably contributed" locally.

So what did the powerful politician — now a state senator let go by the Salvation Army — do for the megachurch that takes in billions each year?

Sometimes, he spoke on its behalf to other public officials, an act generally considered to be lobbying. But the Salvation Army insists he was not a political lobbyist hired to influence legislation.

"There's nothing, nothing political about what he did for us," said Lt. Col. Vern Jewett, Norman's last Salvation Army supervisor. "Absolutely nothing."

His sensitivity is not surprising.

The Salvation Army is exempt from paying millions of dollars each year in taxes. But while such organizations may engage in some lobbying, the IRS says "too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status."

Norman, who is starting his first legislative session in Tallahassee as a state senator, declined requests for an interview.

"I have no comment on my private work history with the Salvation Army," he wrote in an e-mail response to the Times. "As for my work as a Hillsborough County commissioner, at no time did I ever vote on or have any conflicts with my service as a county commissioner."

• • •

Norman started with the Salvation Army in 1979 in Jacksonville. When its state headquarters moved to Tampa, so did he.

Norman's first boss helped develop the Salvation Army program to run misdemeanor probation in Florida. The Salvation Army got contracts to handle those programs across the state, and today still takes in millions in probationers' fees every year.

He sometimes traveled to other counties to work on probation and other corrections programs. Norman, who first won a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission in 1992, became the Salvation Army's state community liaison.

"Part of his value is that he's known and has relationships all around the state," Jewett said. "If he sees a judge in Bradenton and we have a misdemeanor (probation) program, I would expect him to say, 'How's everything going? Salvation Army program okay?' "

But appealing to other counties to get or to keep Salvation Army contracts was "not a majority of his job."

Still, to some people, his activities looked a lot like lobbying.

When Hillsborough Court Clerk Pat Frank was a state senator in the 1980s, she remembers a young Jim Norman in her office, urging her to support Salvation Army probation programs.

In 1990, the probation office the Salvation Army ran in Hernando was under the gun. Some people thought the county would be better off handling the program itself.

Norman was on the scene with an impassioned plea: "Give us this opportunity to perform, and we'll perform," he told commissioners, who ultimately voted unanimously to keep the Salvation Army longer.

Five years later, he was back.

Then-Hernando Commissioner Ray Lossing was looking into consolidating court services, which would have taken probation away from the Salvation Army.

Norman, by then chairman of the Hillsborough County Commission, stood front and center at a meeting in Brooksville to urge the board to stick with what they had.

"He was doing his job," Lossing said recently.

By 2005, however, Hernando decided to put its contract out for open bid.

"It had never been put out," said Hernando County Judge Don Scaglione. "It had been there for more than 20 years, kind of like a monopoly." People were calling to ask how they could get the job, he said. "So we just put it out for public bid."

A company called Probation Professional Services won the contract. Hernando Clerk of Courts Karen Nicolai recalled a meeting Norman attended in the aftermath.

"In my opinion, Jim Norman was very arrogant and almost threatening," she said. He mentioned lawsuits, she said.

Asked about the meeting, Norman declined to comment.

• • •

When on the dais back home, Norman was careful about not getting involved.

When the Salvation Army had business in Hillsborough County — particularly the renewal of the probation contract it has held without competing bids for many years — he pointedly removed himself from the vote.

"I'm going to abstain on it," he said for the record.

The contract passed anyway. It always did. Judges were generally happy with the Salvation Army's services and regularly signed off on it.

But even after he abstained, Norman did not forget his employers. After a 2003 meeting, he asked for copies of the new agreement to be signed by the Salvation Army.

"Commissioner Norman requested 3 more originals for the Salvation Army,'' a clerk's handwritten notes say on county documents. The clerk said Norman took them to be signed and brought them back.

Salvation Army officials said that if he did that, they assume he was saving the county money.

"He was delivering it here to his boss," said director of development Steve Dick, "to show we got the contract."

• • •

As the controversy over Norman broke last year, details on his actual duties with the Salvation Army were vague.

A news release aimed at calming angry donors said Norman "engages in public relations and fundraising." Norman told the Times his job involved "a lot of weekend work."

But Salvation Army officials denied this in a recent interview. They said Norman was in the office every week.

"He (was) always on duty," Jewett said. "If he's on the golf course talking about Salvation Army with people, he's representing the Salvation Army."

Norman told a reporter he spent a lot of time "troubleshooting" and "relationship building." He said if there was a flare-up over a homeless shelter or children's center in a neighborhood, he traveled there to explain "the mission of the Army."

He mentioned closed-door sessions with judges to smooth "hiccups." But he declined to give specific examples.

• • •

In November, the Salvation Army ended its relationship with Norman and allowed him to retire. But officials say it wasn't because of the vacation home or the outraged donors.

Norman had just won his contested election to the state Senate. The deal breaker, Jewett said, was the legislative session that would keep him in Tallahassee at least 60 days a year. Though many lawmakers hold jobs back home, Jewett said that would not work for the Salvation Army.

The retirement appears to have been news to Norman.

Last year, he said his job there was "a calling" and the Salvation Army a "family." On the eve of his election to the Senate, he told a Times reporter the Salvation Army would be the last place he would ever work.

"Jim did not want to end the employment," Jewett said. "And it was not his decision."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Norman saga brought intense glare to charity 03/20/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2011 11:25am]
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