Feds seek records in probe of Jim Norman's conduct as Hillsborough commissioner

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Bill Varian, Sue Carlton and Marlene Sokol

Published February 21, 2011

TAMPA — Federal authorities have filed a sweeping records request in their ongoing investigation into state Sen. Jim Norman's conduct as a former Hillsborough County commissioner.

Among the documents sought: his oath of office, ethics requirements for commissioners and a list of contractors who did business with the county near the time his wife purchased a lakefront Arkansas home with the help of political benefactor Ralph Hughes.

Specifically, the request seeks a list of all contractors who did business with the county six months before and after March 6, 2006 — the date the home was purchased.

Next month marks the five-year anniversary of the purchase, and also the expiration of the statute of limitations on some charges investigators may be pondering.

Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee received the request orally last week. She recorded it in an e-mail memo obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.

It seeks:

• Any rule, law or policy that identifies ethics requirements of county commissioners.

• Commissioners' oath of office.

• Any conflict-of-interest forms filed by Norman in the years 2005 to 2007, and a blank conflict form.

• A list of contractors for the county six months before and after March 6, 2006.

During former Hillsborough Commissioner Jim Norman’s run for the state Senate, his wife’s purchase of this $435,000 house in Arkansas came to light. Testimony later revealed Mearline Norman bought the house with the financial help of a political supporter.

• All appearances by Hughes before any county board or commission from 2005 to 2007.

The county attorney's office is still compiling the information, but indicated Norman filled out three conflict forms during that time. All involved the Salvation Army, for which he worked for 31 years until his recent resignation.

The FBI has previously confirmed it is investigating the circumstances of the home purchase, and a federal prosecutor has been interviewing potential witnesses before a grand jury. A spokesman for the FBI declined to comment Monday.

Norman, who served 18 years as a county commissioner before running for the state Senate last year, also declined to comment for this story and his attorney did not return phone calls.

His wife's purchase of the Arkansas home was revealed during his Senate campaign. Norman's Republican primary opponent, Kevin Ambler, sued him for failing to disclose it.

Testimony in the case revealed Mearline Norman bought the home with the help of $500,000 from Hughes, who ran a precast concrete company before his death in 2008.

A judge initially booted Norman from the ballot for failing to make the disclosure, but an appeals court reinstated him. He had already defeated Ambler in the primary and won the seat with only write-in opposition in the November general election.

Norman has said he was not involved in the home purchase.

Hughes was a recurring presence before commissioners, successfully promoting antitax and progrowth policies. Norman regularly backed that agenda and enjoyed longtime financial support from Hughes and his company during his political campaigns.

Prosecutors would have five years from the date of the home's purchase to file charges of bribery or dishonest dealings by a public official.