Technically speaking, the feds may well have concluded that state Sen. Jim Norman, who is more scruples-challenged than Lex Luthor, is clean as a whistle. So why is it the mere mention of his name makes you want to take a shower?
The former Hillsborough County commissioner got his do-not-go-to-jail hall pass from U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill last week after an investigation into a $500,000 air kiss bestowed on his wife Mearline from the rather late concrete tycoon and village Foghorn Leghorn, Ralph Hughes.
While the deal had the odoriferous aroma of a payoff, the problem for O'Neill was determining if a quid pro quo occurred between the laying-on of cash by Hughes in return for something of value from Norman such as casting a vote that would favor or otherwise specifically benefit the mogul's business interests.
And since Norman spent 18 years on the County Commission serving as Hughes' personal hot walker long before the $500,000 (eye roll) "loan" showed up in Mearline's bank account, O'Neill could not directly prove the commissioner somehow had suddenly upped the ante for his loyalty.
This wasn't quite the same thing as the case against the recently convicted former County Commissioner Kevin White, who was captured on audio tape and video selling himself out for his vote. Good grief, White practically wore a sandwich board around town reading: "Will accept baksheesh for my political juice."
Norman, it seems, managed literally to skirt the long arm of the law by benefitting from Hughes' generosity since the money was directed toward his wife for the purchase of an Arkansas love nest.
The moolah was characterized as a loan from Hughes, although no loan documents or interest rate or repayment plan ever surfaced.
Meanwhile, the commissioner and future state senator insisted, doing his best Sgt. Schultz impersonation, he knew NOTHINGGGG about the deal, as if he woke up one day and like magic there was a $500,000 Arkansas manse in his Christmas stocking.
Perhaps the inability of O'Neill to find some grounds to pursue a case against Norman speaks to an inherent dodge in our public corruption laws. Something is horribly awry if a big shot like Hughes can blithely fork over a half-a-million dollars to the unemployed spouse of an elected official and get away with it simply because a direct link can't quite be made to a specific vote or favor in return.
Couldn't a case be made Hughes was simply putting Norman, via Mearline, on a retainer?
Does anyone believe that Ralph Hughes decided to leave a $500,000 gratuity on the table simply because he loved the way Mearline Norman whipped up cherry cobbler, and not because of the political fortunes of Jim Norman, R-Why Yes I'll Have Seconds, who was a powerful county commissioner well on his way to the state Senate?
There are many dirty pols doing time for having greased palms, not to mention no small number of former Chicago City Council members who are wondering: "Why didn't I think of that?"
Eventually Ralph Hughes went to that brown bag in the sky, while Jim Norman gets to strut around the Florida Senate. Have a nice time.
However, just because O'Neill couldn't make a legal case the $500,000 "loan" to Mearline Norman (which clearly benefitted her husband) wasn't a crime, still doesn't make it right.
Hopefully, voters will understand that, even though it appears to be a concept forever lost on Jim Norman, R-Boss Hayseed.