State Sen. Jim Norman has long maintained no ethical or legal improprieties occurred when the late Hillsborough County businessman Ralph Hughes funneled a no-paperwork and no-questions-asked $500,000 gift to Norman's wife to purchase a lavish house in Arkansas. Within a few days the public should learn if the U.S. Justice Department accepts the senator's tortured excuses at face value.
In what appears to be the final stage of a federal probe into the $500,000 undocumented 2006 loan to Mearline Norman from Hughes, a political benefactor who also frequently appeared before the Hillsborough County Commission while Jim Norman served on the board, the FBI has delivered a sweeping public records request. Agents are seeking copies Norman's oath of office, the ethics requirements of county commissioners — perhaps to determine if Norman ever read them — and a list of contractors who have conducted business with the county before and after the exceedingly generous Hughes' money was transferred to the couple.
The federal grand jury investigation into the Normans' questionable relationship with Hughes is facing a deadline. The five-year statute of limitations on bribery and improper business dealings by a public official will expire next month. The Normans have a lot to explain — namely the lack of a written agreement with Hughes detailing the exact nature of what they claim was a loan, or any evidence of a repayment schedule.
Yet, despite the public scandal, Norman has been warmly received by his fellow Republicans in the Florida Senate and Senate President Mike Haridopolos. The Merritt Island Republican cared so little about Norman's ethical lapses that he blithely appointed the compromised new senator to a number of key committees, including two budget subcommittees and, incredibly, Governmental Oversight and Accountability.
At least in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republican leadership has demonstrated a modicum of circumspection toward newly elected U.S. Rep. David Rivera of Miami, who is caught up in his own ethical scandal dating to his days in the Legislature.
For a few tainted dollars, Norman betrayed his public trust, while his allies in the Florida Senate continue to defend the indefensible. The Normans have never fully, or coherently, explained their actions. Now it is left to the Justice Department to give them that opportunity.