From The Tampa Tribune
State Sen. Jim Norman had a legal duty to disclose that a $500,000 gift was given to his wife by one of his political supporters but did not do so, a prosecutor told members of the Florida Commission on Ethics on Friday. The ethics commissioners agreed, finding probable cause that Norman broke the law when he did not report the half-a-million dollars given to his wife, Mearline, by conservative activist Ralph Hughes. She used the money to buy and renovate a lakefront house in Arkansas. Norman, a Tampa Republican, can now take his State Sen. can fight the case or sign an admission of guilt and pay a fine. case to a state administrative law court or sign an admission of guilt and pay a fine.
He could not be reached for comment, but his Tallahassee attorney, Mark Levine, said Norman had not made up his mind. The commission did not find probable cause that Norman was guilty of the more serious charge of exchanging votes or political favors in return for the money. Hughes, a millionaire manufacturer of precast concrete building materials, often had business before the Hillsborough County Commission when Norman was a member, and contributed money to Republican candidates. He died in 2008.
“It was alleged this transaction took place to influence Mr. Norman’s votes; that’s bad stuff,” Levine said. “They determined there was no reason to believe that occurred.” Federal prosecutors determined the same thing in November when they closed a one-year investigation into the Norman-hughes relationship and found that no laws were broken. Levine made light of the gift charge, saying politicians with spouses who have businesses break the law unknowingly all the time. He called the ethics form that Norman failed to fill out “a stupid piece of paper.”
“If Sen. Norman would have come to me as private counsel and asked me my opinion, I would have told him he didn’t have to report it.” Levine said. But Tampa lawyer Tom Scarritt, a former ethics commissioner, disagreed, saying failure to disclose a $500,000 gift is not a commonplace or trivial mistake.
“I’ve been associated with the commission and aware of ethics cases for over 30 years, and I’ve never heard of that,” Scarritt said. In his arguments to the commission, Levine said Mearline Norman and Hughes had formed a partnership to fix up the Arkansas home and sell it. However, no documents attesting to such a partnership have been found. Scarritt said he doesn’t believe the partnership description.
“In my view if you’re dealing in numbers of that size, you would have documents to show you had some sort of agreement or corporation, and to my knowledge there’s not a scrap of paper,” Scarritt said. George Niemann, one of several Hillsborough County residents who filed ethics complaints against Norman because of the Hughes money, said he felt somewhat vindicated.
“I think justice is partly served,” said Niemann, who drove to Tallahassee for the hearing. “Now we have to see if Sen. Norman is willing to own up and sign a consent order and pay a fine or go for a full-blown trial. … I hope he can admit to the wrongdoing he’s done."