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After sprawl and scandal, Jim Norman seeks comeback on Hillsborough County Commission

Former state legislator and county commissioner Jim Norman said he will file the paperwork to run for Hillsborough County Commission on Tuesday.  Norman said his past dealings with a house bankrolled by a political benefactor are behind him and he is ready to move forward. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
Former state legislator and county commissioner Jim Norman said he will file the paperwork to run for Hillsborough County Commission on Tuesday. Norman said his past dealings with a house bankrolled by a political benefactor are behind him and he is ready to move forward. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Dec. 15, 2015

Tucked in a secluded corner of the Ozark Mountains, far from the traffic and sprawl of Hillsborough County, is the house that took down Jim Norman.

It is a vacation getaway, two stories with a dock and boathouse overlooking a picturesque lake in a resort community where Arkansas meets Missouri.

Five years ago, revelations about who paid for this house fueled a scandal that derailed Norman's political career. A powerful Hillsborough County commissioner and rising Republican star, Norman was headed to a bigger stage in the Florida Legislature when the story broke.

Headlines detail what happened next: How Norman's millionaire friend whose business benefited from county votes bankrolled the $435,000 house for Norman's wife. How a judge called Norman's explanation — that this was his wife's investment about which he knew nothing — absurd. How he left politics.

Now, at the age of 61, Norman says he's ready for a comeback.

Today, he says, he will file to run for the $95,888-a-year seat on the County Commission where he was a player for nearly two decades. And along with his record as a strong conservative and developer-friendly commissioner, the Arkansas house will loom large.

Norman says he should have been more forthcoming back then about the house. But he also insists he was wronged. He has a poll, a lie detector test, and, a supporter says, six figures in promised campaign contributions.

"I got cleared. I got totally cleared," Norman said Monday. "Now let's talk about what's best for the county."

• • •

He was a tireless campaigner who knocked on thousands of doors and never lost an election. A former prep football coach with a job as a legislative liaison for the Salvation Army, he championed youth sports, parks and conservative causes.

"He was very powerful," said Hillsborough County commissioner and former state legislator Victor Crist. "If Jim Norman got behind what you wanted to do, it got done."

Norman joined the vote to ban county government from even acknowledging gay pride events. He said no to health benefits for unmarried couples, including same-sex partners. "I see this as (leading) to gay marriage next," Norman said in 2004. "This is not going to be San Francisco east."

He angered black leaders with a proclamation honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. He blasted Obamacare as "a socialism takeover."

In 1999, reporters found Norman at the Bellagio Casino Resort in Las Vegas hanging out with a garbage lobbyist who appeared frequently before the commission. Norman had told the board he was attending to "family matters."

On Monday, he insisted he paid for himself and said he added days onto the planned trip to deal with a family death.

• • •

Norman's legacy also lies in the county's development — or, critics say, its sprawl.

Construction mogul Ralph Hughes found a kindred soul in Commissioner Norman.

Hughes, owner of the Cast-Crete precast concrete business in Seffner, pushed for less regulation and smaller government. He railed against taxes and impact fees on new construction that paid for roads, schools and sewer lines — policy positions that benefited his business. He donated generously to candidates of like mind.

In 2000, Norman pushed hard to abolish impact fees in some communities. "It's not just waiving impact fees," he said in 2008. "It's just trying to create a financial environment that's better than anywhere else."

Hughes made his fortune in building materials. After the vote in 2000 to halt impact fees in some areas, he sold materials to two subdivisions slated for 3,000 homes in one of those zones.

Then-Commissioner Rose Ferlita told the Times that when she met with Hughes in her 2006 campaign, he asked if she would look his way on issues. She declined. "I found very quickly that Ralph expected something back from me if I was going to be one of his chosen candidates," she said then.

Norman and Hughes became like family. Hughes, his relatives and close associates gave to Norman's campaigns — at least $15,000 in 2002 and 2006.

Norman said Monday that Hughes' contributions were a small percentage of the money he raised over the years. He said builders across the community likely benefited from commission pro-growth votes. Lower impact fees were all about trying to revive depressed communities, he said.

"Ralph Hughes isn't the only contract guy in town," Norman said.

After Hughes' death in 2008 at 77, Norman pushed hard to rename the county's prestigious award for residents who show moral courage in standing up to government after his friend and benefactor. "I've never seen anybody put their money where their mouth is like Mr. Hughes," Norman said back then.

One recipient was so offended she gave her award back. The renaming was rescinded after the IRS said Hughes died owing millions in unpaid taxes.

• • •

Norman was state Senate-bound in 2010 when news broke about an Arkansas vacation home not listed on his financial disclosure forms. "It's an investment my wife has," he told the Times. "I have gone there, but it's not mine."

So how did Mearline Norman, who did not work outside the home, come up with $435,000 for the house — more that twice what the Normans' home in the Tampa suburb of Carrollwood was worth?

For months, Norman would not name his wife's "investors," as he put it. Finally, the answer emerged: Ralph Hughes. Mrs. Norman later said in court she and Hughes planned to split profits from the house.

Why the secrecy if there was nothing untoward?

Norman said Monday he felt "barraged."

"I'm not perfect, but I shut down," he said. "Today, I would have handled it differently."

Norman said Hughes never had specific issues before the commission, so his wife and Hughes had the right to "a business relationship."

Asked about the appearance of impropriety, given Hughes' business interests and Norman's position as a commissioner, Norman said: "It wasn't a political benefit, cut and dry, like you're trying to say it was. I mean, we loved each other."

His political trajectory took a dive. A Tallahassee judge considering an attempt to disqualify his candidacy called Norman's contention that he "knew absolutely nothing" about the house "patently absurd." She said Norman intentionally deceived the public.

"I was told by both my wife and Ralph to butt out," Norman said Monday. "It was not my business."

He won his race but did not fare well in public opinion. "Public office is a public trust," former Hillsborough Commissioner Jan Platt said then. "Obviously, that didn't sink in to Jim Norman."

The U.S. Attorney's Office investigated but did not charge him. He admitted guilt to one count in an ethics complaint, saying he should have disclosed the six-figure amount to his wife from Hughes.

Quipped his opponent, Rob Wallace: "Jim Norman has been tied up with grand jury hearings. He's been busy with the Commission on Ethics investigation. I think he needs to spend more time at the lake."

In 2012, Norman withdrew his bid for re-election.

• • •

Norman's wife still owns the Arkansas house, which he says is valued at about $200,000 less than it was, as well as two other investment properties there. Norman said he hasn't been back to the house in years. Mrs. Norman settled with the Hughes estate, he said, though he said details are confidential.

Since leaving office, Norman said he has done some consulting work. Investments have seen him through financially, he said.

Today, he plans to file to run for the District 6 countywide commission seat. Three Democrats — former Commissioner Tom Scott, Pat Kemp and Brian Willis — and Republican Thomas Avino are already in.

Norman says he hasn't studied the county's plans for a transportation referendum. He declines to say whether his views have changed on gay rights issues. "That's all been resolved in the courts," he said.

Republican activist and supporter Sam Rashid has boasted that Norman has $100,000 in campaign pledges at the ready. Norman won't reveal details of a poll a few months ago but says it was favorable. This week he gave the Times the results of a private lie detector test in which his responses were "not indicative of deception" when he said he never solicited nor accepted a bribe or got anything of value "for an official act specifically benefiting Ralph Hughes."

"I've matured a heck of a lot," Norman said Monday.

His critics are ready. A recent La Gaceta political column on the house used the word "payola" over and over.

"He's been carrying the water for developers for all his 18 years on the commission," Kemp said. "He's as much responsible for the condition Hillsborough County is in today — the transportation, the sprawl mess we're in."

Norman has friends backing him.

"He's not a crook," said former fellow Commissioner Joe Chillura. "He's made some mistakes that are forgivable, in my opinion."

"Is it his to lose? That's too early to tell," former Commissioner Crist said. "He's definitely going to be a force to contend with."

Said Norman: "I'm burning to go, man."

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com. John Martin can be reached at jmartin@tampabay.com.