While an appeals court has all but paved the way for embattled Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman to take the Florida Senate District 12 seat, one of the nation’s largest charitable organizations hasn’t decided whether it can continue to employ him.
Norman, a Republican, has long been the Salvation Army’s Florida community liaison, but even though the Senate hopeful is almost assured the District 12 seat come Nov. 2, his $95,000-a-year job with the charity is not.
“We are awaiting the outcome of the election and any decisions made by the grand jury,” says Salvation Army Maj. Larry Broone, when asked about the status of Norman’s employment.
Boone’s assessment is a stark commentary on where Norman stands with both critics and supporters amid a scandal over $500,000 given to his wife from a wealthy, now-deceased Tampa businessman, that has rocked Norman’s reputation, if not his candidacy.
While still the subject of a federal criminal investigation, Norman has gone from winning the Republican primary, to being tossed off the ballot by a circuit court judge who found Norman should have disclosed the half-million, to being placed back on the ballot after the First District Court of Appeal overturned the lower court’s decision.
When Norman defeated his longtime friend turned bitter primary opponent, Florida Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, it appeared he would sail into the state Senate with no Democratic opposition, and only two write-in candidates who have not mounted campaigns in his way. Norman won with endorsements from Republican stalwarts like former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Instead, Ambler filed a lawsuit after losing the primary, accusing Norman of failing to disclose the Arkansas home prior to the primary election. Ensuing testimony revealed the home had been purchased by Norman’s wife using a $500,000 check from Tampa businessman Ralph Hughes, who made millions in the concrete business, and regularly appeared before the Hillsborough County Commission.
Norman claimed in a Leon County Circuit Court trial he did not disclose the home because it was an investment between his wife and Hughes that he played no role in, and did not benefit from — a claim Judge Jackie Fulford called “patently absurd” before tossing Norman off the ballot.
The ruling led Republicans in Hillsborough and Pasco counties to nominate former Florida Rep. Rob Wallace to replace Norman on the ballot, till Wednesday’s ruling overturning Fulford’s findings.
“I made Florida history today,” Wallace told The Florida Independent Wednesday. “I qualified with state elections officials at 11 a.m., but by 1 p.m. I was out. It took about two hours to mount the shortest campaign in history.”
The First District Court of Appeal issued an opinion overturning Fulford’s ruling, saying Ambler should have filed his complaint before the primary election and with the Florida Commission on Ethics, not in court. Ambler has since announced he will not appeal the ruling to the Florida Supreme Court.
The appeals court stated Fulford’s ruling not only had jurisdictional issues, but that the only purview of the courts is to ensure that candidates for state office are 21 years of age, have lived in Florida for two years, live in the district where they are running and have never been convicted of a felony or declared mentally ill.
After the ruling, Tampa attorney Frank Winkles issued a statement on Norman’s behalf, describing Norman’s excitement to begin taking on the business of being a senator. Norman could not be reached by The Florida Independent for comment; in the statement, Winkles wrote that the commissioner planned to address the media in the coming days.
“He is ready to put this behind him and be a diligent and hardworking State Senator,” Winkles wrote.
But that may not be easy. One expert on elections says Norman got lucky by not facing real opposition in the general election. Normally, such a scandal would bring down a campaign, one reason that financial disclosures by candidates are routinely taken very seriously, according to Stetson University political science professor T. Wayne Bailey.
“It appears that the stars and planets have aligned for him as his toughest challenge came before these allegations surfaced,” says Bailey. “But it seems to me this may have a very unsatisfactory ending for the voters. This may very well lead to more intense oversight of the conduct of this man in office.”
It is unlikely any of the revelations against Norman will result in him being removed from office after the general election, even if an ethics complaint is filed with the state, Bailey says.
“The appellate court’s ruling follows a great deal of case law that makes judges very reluctant to set aside the results of elections,” Bailey says. “And I would say it’s very unlikely that a disclosure violation would amount to anything more than a fine.”
The fallout from Norman’s court battle has some bewildered, disgruntled and disillusioned.
After news reports of the Arkansas home surfaced, Tampa attorney Paul Phillips filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics, but the complaint was sent back because Phillips filed it within five days of the primary election, which is the deadline for complaints against candidates prior to an election.
Phillips expressed disgust at the First District’s ruling and said he would leave the filing of another complaint to someone else.
“I hope some concerned citizen will file something,” he says. “But for me, what does it matter anymore? What we know in this case is disconcerting to voters and the people Mr. Norman serves, but this stuff is just going to keep going on.”
Jan Platt served on the Hillsborough County Commission for 24 years, many of those years with Norman. She tells The Florida Independent she feels Norman always had Hughes’ interests at heart.
For years, Hughes donated cash to campaigns and pulled the strings on Norman and others on the commission to get what he wanted, Platt claims.
“His credibility is zero,” Platt says of Norman. “Public office is a public trust and that never set in to Jim Norman.”
Another of Norman’s former colleagues on the commission, Joe Chillura, who served on the board from 1991 to 1998, says he is friends with Norman, but not nearly as long as he was friends with Hughes.
“I think the picture that has been painted is inaccurate. Ralph Hughes is being made out to be some kind of power-broker, but that just isn’t the case,” Chillura says. “He and Jim Norman had a father-and-son relationship.”
Chillura says Hughes donated to his campaigns for county commission as well but never put pressure on him to vote a certain way.
Like the Salvation Army’s Broone, Chillura tells The Florida Independent that his friend Norman is being investigated by a grand jury, which he says is a “total shock.”
“Frankly, I’m convinced Jim didn’t do anything illegal or wrong. If he did, he is of the mind to correct it,” Chillura says.
After his two-hour candidacy ended, Wallace said the voters face a tough decision on Nov. 2 when it comes to voting for Norman.
“Mr. Norman proved his point in court,” Wallace said. “In this country, there is a presumption of innocence, so now I am sure he will turn his attention to mount any defense he may need. The things that have come forward are very shocking; now it’s up to the voters to decide how they feel about it.”