State Sen. Jim Norman may have been cleared of criminal violations, but that hardly restores the reputation of a deceptive, self-interested politician who has displayed little regard for ethical behavior.
Nevertheless, U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill was right to announce he had closed the investigation into Norman, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, since investigators found no "violation of a federal criminal law."
But if no laws were broken, Norman behaved with supreme arrogance, keeping secret his family's financial dealings with a wealthy political power broker who frequently appeared before the commission, where Norman championed his agenda.
Once the secret arrangements were revealed, Norman did his utmost to mislead the public.
Indeed, when it was first reported that Norman's wife had paid cash for a lakefront vacation home in Arkansas, Norman stressed there were other investors. He told us "they" were like family members. But there was no "they" involved.
The late political activist and wealthy businessman Ralph Hughes had given Norman's wife the $500,000 that allowed the purchase. Hughes contributed heavily to Norman's campaigns, and Norman backed a number of Hughes-backed proposals.
But federal investigators could find no "quid pro quo," where it appeared Norman's votes were intended to reward Hughes in exchange for the $500,000.
It is obvious Norman knew the financial tie to Hughes, who died in 2008, was inappropriate. Why else would he have kept the Arkansas deal secret — he did not list it on his financial disclosure form — or try to mislead the public about secret "investors?" Norman is not entirely out of the woods.
Former state Rep. Kevin Ambler, who ran against Norman in the Senate race and first raised questions about the vacation house, says he believes Norman broke state laws that prohibit public officials or their spouses from taking gifts. The issue will be up to State Attorney Mark Ober, who should give it serious attention.
Norman also faces an ethics complaint to the Florida Commission on Ethics.
Ambler, after losing the Republican primary, sought to have Norman removed from the ballot because of his deceptive financial disclosure form. A judge agreed, but an appeals court reversed the decision — not because Norman did not violate the disclosure requirements but because the law did not contain a disqualification provision, an omission the Legislature should rectify.
In evaluating this episode, we urge citizens to reflect on the findings of Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford, who scrutinized the case when making the ruling that removed Norman from the ballot.
She wrote: "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 no concern to Jim Norman at all. When he failed to disclose any part of this transaction, which includes his single largest asset … this Court finds by clear and convincing evidence that he did so intentionally to deceive the public."
Norman may have skated by the legal technicalities, but he has proved himself a public official who cannot be trusted.