Jim Norman wants to rise higher in public life this year by moving from the Hillsborough County Commission to the state Senate. Yet he refuses to answer how his wife managed to buy a second home with $435,000 in cash. The man Norman beat in the Republican Senate primary, state Rep. Kevin Ambler, charged in a lawsuit this week that a late construction magnate, Ralph Hughes, who long supported Norman's political career loaned Norman $435,000 just before his wife purchased the home. The FBI is reportedly investigating. The only one not working to clear the air is the commissioner and future senator.
Norman needs to answer the simple question: Where did his wife get the money? Mearline Norman does not work outside the home. Yet she is listed as the sole owner of the lakefront home in Arkansas located in a resort and retirement community with golf courses, swimming pools, lakes and other amenities.
Norman said his wife bought the property with "investors," whom he would not name. But the deed on the home bears only Mearline Norman's name. Jim Norman is included on the titles of two boats parked dockside — boats Norman did not mention on his financial disclosure form, and which the lawsuit contends were part of a package deal for the home.
Norman has refused to answer any questions. "That's my wife's interests," he insists. Norman also contends he is a victim of dirty political tricks. But this has nothing to do with Ambler, the Senate campaign or Norman's self-inflated view of privacy. The suit implies a direct link between a longtime political supporter of Norman's and his wife's financial worth. Hughes benefited greatly from the prodevelopment, low-tax policies Norman pushed for as a commissioner. And while Mearline Norman may be listed alone on the deed, she is Jim Norman's wife, not some third-party corporate entity. Norman only raises suspicion by being so secretive and defensive.
Public officials in Florida are required to fully disclose their financial holdings so the public can see whether their business dealings and debts raise clear conflicts of interest. Norman may have run out the clock on these questions before the Aug. 24 primary, but the issues are serious and they are not going away. They would be serious whether Hughes was the source of such a huge sum or not. The FBI needs to follow the money; the public should not have to rely on the unsubstantiated claims in a civil suit, or on Norman's sense of duty to come clean.
This is another embarrassing chapter in the county commission's history, and the question now is whether it will also stain the Florida Senate.