The latest effort by Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman to derail a lawsuit aimed at disqualifying him from the November ballot has failed and a circuit court judge in Tallahassee has ruled testimony in the case can go forward. The recent admission by lawyers representing Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman that his wife Mearline received a half million dollars from late Tampa businessman Ralph Hughes to buy a lakefront vacation home in Arkansas is raising more questions with Tom Scarritt, the former Chairman of the State Commission on Ethics.
When asked what it means, Scarritt said, "Nothing good. Honestly nothing good. It's just too strong of a connection." An ABC Action News investigation was the first to uncover the previously undisclosed vacation home . Since then, the FBI has opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the purchase of the home. State Representative Kevin Ambler, who lost to Norman in the State Senate Primary, is suing in an attempt to get the commissioner disqualified from the general election ballot. The suit claims Norman did not report his financial interest in the real estate deal despite state election law requiring him to do so.
Scarritt says the purpose of the financial disclosure forms is to give the public an opportunity to see if candidates are getting any financial benefit from anyone that could influence their decisions. In the case of the late Ralph Hughes, former CEO of Cast-Crete and Republican activist, he often lobbied the County Commissioners on issues like impact-free zones, which benefited developers and his own business.
"Build a house on this lot and development takes place,” Hughes said at a Board of County Commissioners meeting in 2000. And in this open letter to the public just two years ago, Hughes lauds Norman's continued pro-development support as "right on target." But when we asked Norman in July about whether it was the Hughes, who died two years ago who gave his wife the money to buy the Arkansas home, he denied the money came from anyone who came before the County Commissioners.
"What my wife does with investors that don't come before the county commission for any decision ... What my wife does with her business is her business,” Norman told us.
"Now there's an admission there wasn't a group of investors, and that it was just one person -- Mr. Hughes -- who contributed money towards the purchase of the house," notes Scarritt. "The question has to be answered: Was this an indirect gift to the commissioner?" On Thursday, Jim Norman and the son of Ralph Hughes will be questioned under oath. Their statements can be used in the federal investigation.