Jim Norman can't get his story straight, and he can't continue to hide behind his wife and his lawyers. First the longtime Hillsborough County commissioner claimed he had nothing to do with a half-million-dollar lake home his wife purchased with unnamed "investors." Then he acknowledged through his lawyer that most of the money was put up by Ralph Hughes, a wealthy developer and political supporter. Now new court documents charge that Norman was directly involved with buying the property. The public deserves answers from Norman, and the federal investigation should be vigorous and thorough.
There is no good end to the story of a local businessman fronting nearly a half-million dollars to the spouse of a county commissioner. But Norman made it worse by trying to conceal the source of the money and claiming his wife's business affairs were somehow separate from his own welfare and his actions in public office.
The newest allegations raise serious legal and political questions. State Rep. Kevin Ambler, who lost to Norman in the August Republican primary for a Hillsborough-Pasco state Senate seat, is suing to invalidate the election results. Amber argues Norman falsified candidate qualifying papers to conceal his financial involvement in the lakefront house deal. In court documents filed Tuesday, Ambler charged that Norman accompanied his wife, Mearline, on several visits to Arkansas to look at property; that the Normans used money from a joint checking account to buy the home; that Jim Norman was present at the March 2006 closing on the sale; and that the Normans used a joint account to pay taxes and maintain and insure the property.
These charges sharply contradict Norman's insistence that the house was his wife's business. Whether Norman failed to properly fill out his financial disclosure forms is an issue for the courts to decide. But ultimately, the voters — not the courts, and certainly not the Republican Party — should decide who fills the Senate seat.
Regardless of the legal technicalities, Norman has no satisfactory defense for either the financing of the Arkansas house or his failure to disclose it. The purpose of requiring financial disclosures is so the public can see whether elected officials have a financial stake in helping those who come before them. Some officials won't accept a cup of coffee; Norman apparently thought six figures from a political kingmaker to his wife was legitimate business. No wonder the public's confidence in government is so low.
It is a shame that Norman is a shoo-in to win the state Senate seat in November. That's partly the fault of a primary system the major political parties rigged to keep easy control of safe seats. The Democrats also are to blame for not putting up a challenger for the general election. But Norman won the Republican primary, and the best course of action now is for the FBI to keep digging and determine whether serious criminal charges are warranted. A Senate seat and the integrity of government is at stake.