During a debate on the transit tax earlier this year, Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman scolded his colleagues on the board who support the passage of the sales tax referendum by calling on them to "man up," and be frank that the tax (in his opinion) was mostly financing light rail, and they should stop talking about how the fund would pay for increased bus service and improved roads.
That comment could very well now be reflected back on the commissioner and would be state Senator in the revelations reported by both the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune over the weekend by Frank Winkles, an attorney for the Normans, that the late Ralph Hughes was the investor in the 2006 purchase of an Arkansas home by Norman's wife Mearline.
"Mearline Norman made her own business investment with Ralph Hughes, a man who had been her friend, mentor and adviser for 20 years," Winkles said Friday. "She put over $100,000 of her own money and had hundreds of hours of work on the project."
This is a huge development in the story, which originally was broken by ABC 28 WFTS back in mid-July.
They originally reported that the 2,800 square foot home with three bedrooms and a private dock was valued at $435,000 and purchased by Mearline in 2006 without a mortgage or any kind of loan. They also reported two boats owned by Norman did not appear on his official financial disclosure forms, which he immediately said he was in error of and would correct.
When asked directly by the media if the money had come from Hughes, a notoriously powerful developer in the county before he died in 2008, Norman said, "Ralph Hughes did not loan me money for that house." He added that it was Mearline's purchase, and he's a modern guy who doesn't apparently inquire too much about such major purchases. She bought it he said, with "a group of investors."
Then on August 19, an ethics complaint was filed against Jim Norman by Republican lawyer Paul Phillips, who put some more specifics into the mix as he claimed that Mearline Norman bought the home from a company controlled by Ed Roleson Jr., a Miller Beer distributor. Phillips said in the same year that she bought the home, Raymond James Stadium added a Miller Beer patio deck. Norman is a member of the Tampa Sports Authority, which manages the football stadium.
Kevin Ambler, Norman's opponent in the GOP race for state Senate, sat back and read the news accounts with the rest of us, and (one would assume) hoped that it would persuade District 12 voters that the negative news coverage would help him come from behind and beat Norman, who was endorsed and supported by most of the Tallahassee GOP establishment (including from Jeb Bush).
It didn't, and only he lost to Norman on August 24 did Ambler take legal action, filing a lawsuit on August 31, requesting that a judge throw Norman's name off the November 2 ballot and name him, Kevin Ambler, the winner of the race..
The whole point of this is he didn't win fair and square if he wasn't qualified to run as a candidate in the first place, said Ambler.
More importantly for Jim Norman, both local dailies have also reported that the FBI is hunting into this entire affair.
As proceedings have begun apace in the Ambler lawsuit, the levee started breaking on Friday, when the Times reported on Friday that John Stanton, Ralph Hughes' longtime business partner, said that shortly after his death in 2008, Shea Hughes, Ralph's son, asked for "advise" on how to get back a $500,000 loan that his dad had given the Normans.
Then we heard from Frank Winkles on Friday, finally bringing up Ralph Hughes himself.
You don't need to be a legal analyst to know that Jim Norman is in some serious doo-doo, and he has nobody to blame but himself for his precarious situation.
So what's he gonna do? Only what his attorney tells him, obviously at this point.
But after 18 years,would it be inaccurate to say that his legacy is not going to be positive when this saga is all done? No, that would appear to be pretty damn sage at this moment in time.
If we know nothing else about all of this, we know that Jim Norman has certainly not "manned up" as he called on Mark Sharpe, Kevin White, Rose Ferlita and Kevin Beckler last February to do regarding what transit tax was all about. Instead he's played a game of semantics that has made him look like he's been hiding something from day one that the story broke.
And his forceful advocacy for renaming the County's Moral Courage Award for Hughes, which many said at the time sounded like a bad joke, is another quiver in the bow for the case morally against Norman, if not legally.
Norman had his staff produce a DVD tribute to Hughes to distribute to his board colleagues to show why Hughes deserved the posthumous tribute after his death two years ago.
That move to name the award for Hughes was blasted by environmental activists at the time (which you can relive in this story I produced for WMNF at the time), who were never fans of Hughes or Norman.
Norman is on the ballot on November 2 against a couple of write-in candidates, with the Hillsborough Democratic Party never fielding a candidate in the seat that had been held for years by Victor Crist. Will those voters ignore these reports and go ahead and fill in the bubble for the heavily favored Norman? Perhaps so. But will he actually represent them in Tallahassee next spring as the 2011 session begins? Let's all watch and see.