After spending more than a year in the glare of a highly publicized federal investigation, state Sen. Jim Norman was officially cleared Monday.
U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill said federal investigators failed to turn up evidence that Norman violated federal law when his wife, Mearline, accepted $500,000 from deceased conservative activist Ralph Hughes.
Mearline Norman used the money to buy and renovate a lakefront house in Arkansas, but Norman claims he had nothing to do with the loan or the purchase of the home.
Investigators "were looking at the house and the loan from Mr. Hughes," O'Neill said Monday, declining to delve deeper into details of the investigation.
Basically, there was no evidence unearthed by the investigators that there was a federal criminal violation."
Norman did not return phone calls Monday. His attorney, Frank Winkles, released a statement saying the Normans wanted to express their appreciation to O'Neill for his "straightforwardness" in concluding the investigation.
"Additionally, while they have always believed that Sen. Norman would be exonerated, the couple wishes to thank all who have continuously offered their friendship and support during this difficult time," Winkles said in the release.
Norman, who was a Hillsborough County commissioner when the loan was made, still faces an investigation by the state Commission on Ethics in connection with the Arkansas home. An ethics violation carries a fine but no prison time.
Attorneys familiar with the case say the government faced significant hurdles because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year in the case of Jeffrey Skilling, the former chief executive officer of Enron Corp. Skilling was indicted under an anti-fraud law making it a crime to "deprive another of the intangible right of honest services."
But the Supreme Court said the honest services provision was vague. The effect of the ruling was that prosecutors must prove a politician gave something of value in return for a bribe.
"What it requires under Skilling is that you basically have to show a quid pro quo," said defense attorney and former federal prosecutor John Fitzgibbons. "There is no doubt that Mr. Hughes was very kind to Mr. Norman and his wife, but it's clear the feds could not find the linkage between the house and an official act of Mr. Norman."
Hughes frequently spoke at county commission meetings and contributed tens of thousands of dollars to mostly Republican candidates.
The failed investigation was a disappointment to the man who played a key role in revealing Hughes' connection to the Arkansas home. Former state Rep. Kevin Ambler first disclosed Hughes' loan to Mearline Norman in a lawsuit seeking to overturn his loss to Jim Norman in the August 2010 Republican primary for Senate District 12.
Ambler claimed in his lawsuit that Norman was not qualified to run because he failed to disclose the Arkansas home on state ethics forms.
After a one-day trial of the lawsuit, a Leon County circuit judge disqualified Norman. Her decision was overturned on appeal, however, and Norman went on to handily win the November general election against two virtually unknown candidates.
Ambler, a former federal prosecutor, said he understood O'Neill's limitations in light of the Skilling ruling.
"It's hard without showing the direct exchange of something for something," Ambler said. "That's a hard thing to prove unless you catch someone in the act of engaging in the trade."
Ambler said he still believes Norman broke state laws that prohibit public officials or their spouses from accepting gifts.
"That will be up to the state attorney to decide," he said.
State attorney Mark Ober could not be reached for comment.
Also chagrinned by the government's decision to close the case was George Niemann, a Dover activist who filed the ethics complaint against Norman.
"I'm disappointed because we all know what he did and he's going to walk away from criminal charges, but he's not out of the woods yet," Niemann said. "It may not have risen to criminal behavior, but he may still get nailed on the ethics charges."
Among the documents requested by investigators earlier this year was a list of contractors that worked for the county from six months before and six months after March 6, 2006.
During that period, checks from Hughes were deposited in a bank account opened by Mearline Norman, according to records released in Ambler's lawsuit.
The investigators also asked for a list of all Hughes' appearances before the county commission or other county boards during the years 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Hughes, who died in 2008, was a millionaire manufacturer of pre-cast concrete products used in construction projects around the county.