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Daniel Ruth

Judge derails Norman's gravy train

Tis a pity there is no elected office for a court jester. Jim Norman, Hillsborough County's answer to Spiro Agnew meets Elmer Fudd, would be a prohibitive favorite to claim the post.

Along with his wife, Mearline, the commissioner found himself hoisted on his own hubris by a Leon County circuit court judge Friday for being a money-grubbing, greased-up public official — and a prevaricating poltroon of a hapless pol as well.

Norman had his well-padded (in more ways than one) keister tossed off the November ballot by Judge Jackie Fulford, which, if there is any justice, will properly end the commissioner's dreams of joining the Tallahassee slop trough as a member of the Florida Senate.

At issue was $500,000 worth of odiferous baksheesh the Normans accepted from the late Ralph Hughes, a Hillsborough County Daddy Warbucks, who used his checkbook like a pair of brass knuckles to collect fawning, obsequious toadies like the commissioner to do his bidding.

For his years of loyal service as Hughes' personal lawn jockey, the $500,000 went to buy a swanky Arkansas love nest for Norman and his Evita of Carrollwood. Then along came 2010 and Norman's state Senate campaign, where the commissioner somehow forgot to mention he had collected a half-a-million from his godfather.

And because he neglected to inform the public he had happily accepted a $500,000 gratuity from Hughes, a chap who appeared often before the county commission, Norman's Republican primary opponent, state Rep. Kevin Ambler, cried foul and went to court in an attempt to have his old pal tossed off the November ballot.

In a week of often hilarious testimony before Fulford, the Normans came off as more disingenuous than a Hollywood air kiss as they stumbled and fumbled in trying to convince the judge the land deal was simply a real estate investment cooked up between the Gracie Allen of the Ozarks and Boss Hughes.

For his part, Norman continued to insist he knew nothing about the details of his wife's financial dealings with Hughes.

Mearline, who has a less successful track record in business investments than Ralph Kramden, insisted everything was on the up and up with her benefactor. But she was unable to provide a scrap of documentation to validate her claim this was an investment — no contract, nothing to indicate an interest rate, no repayment schedule and no evidence she had ever made a payment to Hughes. And indeed, there was zero evidence Hughes had ever sought to be repaid for his "investment."

O.J. Simpson had a more credible alibi.

In giving the defrocked candidate the bum's rush off the ballot, Fulford noted Jim Norman's flimsy claim the Arkansas house was entirely his little buttercup's business deal was "patently absurd." The judge excoriated the commissioner for attempting to deceive the public by hiding the Hughes money underneath his wife's petticoat.

And finally, the judge for all practical purposes suggested the $500,000 party gift was little more than a payoff for Norman's long, dedicated fealty in service to Hughes as his personal legislative lap dancer.

With Norman now horse-whipped off the ballot by Fulford, it falls to the state Republican Party, hardly a sweat lodge of scruples itself, to appoint a replacement on the November ballot. In the interests of time, selecting Ambler would make the most sense.

But this is politics after all, so it's entirely possible state Republicans could merely appoint the more tainted than Warren Harding Jim Norman to succeed himself. If so, that would pretty effectively preclude the state GOP from pandering to voters as the party of honesty, integrity, financial accountability and transparency.

Still, Jim and Mearline Norman, and their $500,000 Bernie Madoff starter kit, have far bigger problems than whether the commissioner will ever get the opportunity to become part of the Tallahassee all-day buffet line.

The FBI is investigating the fun couple. And the guys with the badges have to be asking what you are probably thinking right about now. Did the Normans ever receive any other undeclared monies from Hughes? Did any other county commissioners ever receive Christmas bonuses from the mogul? Could Hughes have possibly underwritten Norman's $95,000-a-year job at the Salvation Army where it seems the only requirement for the gig was to have a pulse?

And if the answers to any of those questions are in the affirmative, at least the Normans still could realize their dreams to live a big house — a very big house.

Judge derails Norman's gravy train 10/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 2:24am]

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