Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford ruled late Friday that Jim Norman is ineligible for the November ballot, in a case that will establish precedent in Florida — the state has never before had a candidate disqualified from an election for failing to properly disclose assets to the public.
The lawsuit, brought by state Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, after losing to Norman in the GOP Senate primary for District 12, focused on a $500,000 loan to Norman’s wife made by Tampa businessman Ralph Hughes for a lakefront home in Arkansas, with Judge Fulford determining that the Hillsborough County Commissioner did in fact know of the deal he testified to be fully ignorant of:
Jim Norman has failed to provide full and public disclosure as required by the Florida Constitution. It is clear to this Court that Ralph Hughes gave Mearline Norman $500,000, for the benefit of Jim Norman, who at the time was a public official before whom Mr. Hughes regularly appeared.
While he claims to have turned a blind-eye to that transaction, his obligation to promote the public interest and maintain the respect of the people in their government was not only not his foremost concern, but of concern to Jim Norman at all.
When he failed to disclose any part of this transaction, which includes his single largest asset, as part of his assets and/or net worth on the Form 6 in filing to qualify for Florida Senate, District 12, this Court finds by clear and convincing evidence that he did so intentionally to deceive the public.
Allowing defendant Jim Norman to remain on the ballot would be an affirmation by this Court that such a bold, intentional and material representation to the public is acceptable under the law; and this Court will not do so.
The trial featured testimony by Ambler, a former friend of Norman’s, claiming to have been privy to the house dealings before the 2006 purchase and speaking to the close relationship of Hughes to the Norman family.
From the St. Petersburg Times:
Hughes, who died in 2008, ran a Seffner building materials company and was a strong advocate of pro-growth policies, appearing repeatedly before the County Commission. The relationship between Hughes and Norman is now the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation.
Mearline Norman described a 50-50 partnership between herself and Hughes that had no documentation, and a bank account that Hughes had instructed her to open with a $500,000 check. She and Norman both insisted the commissioner was not involved, even though he traveled several times to the Arkansas house.
Fulford made it clear in her ruling that she didn’t buy the story.
“Jim Norman, as a county commissioner, has been responsible for assisting with billion dollar budgets,” Fulford wrote. “He testified that he goes ‘door to door’ to assist the citizens of Hillsborough County.
“And yet, he asks this court to believe that his wife was involved in the purchase of an asset that was valued at more than three and a half times their own home. … And he knew absolutely nothing about it. The court finds this testimony patently absurd.”
The Senate race for District 12 now remains in limbo, as Norman’s only competition in November had been two write-in candidates, with no Democratic challenger in the running. State law allows for political parties to choose a replacement in the event a candidate is removed from the ballot, yet Ambler had been asking as part of his lawsuit to be named the Republican nominee, a distinction not addressed in Fulford’s 21-page ruling and an issue his attorneys will ask the court to clarify. Norman’s lawyers have vowed a speedy appeal.
Read the ruling in full and view evidence from the trial below: