TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ In a first-of-its-kind case, a judge Friday removed a Republican state Senate candidate from the Nov. 2 ballot for violating Florida's financial disclosure laws.
Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford in Tallahassee ruled Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman was ineligible for nomination or election. The decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by state Rep. Kevin Ambler, who lost to Norman in the District 12 GOP primary by 12 percentage points. Both are from Tampa.
Department of State spokeswoman Jennifer Krell Davis said election officials were studying the ruling to determine if Norman can be replaced on the ballot by another Republican. No Democrat is running, but two write-in candidates are seeking the seat.
Political parties in the past have been allowed to name replacements for nominees who withdrew before an election, but this case is different because Norman is not voluntarily giving up his candidacy.
Ambler wanted the judge to put him on the ballot in place of Norman, but she declined, leaving it up to election officials to inform "voters of who would actually be receiving their vote'' if they cast a ballot for Norman. Many ballots already have been printed so its too late to remove his name.
Norman could appeal to a higher court. His campaign office did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Fulford wrote in a 21-page opinion that there's been no similar case she could rely upon for guidance.
She decided Norman violated the law by failing to disclose a $500,000 gift to his wife, Mearline Norman, from a friend of the couple, a businessman who appeared before Jim Norman in his official capacity. The money was used to purchase a home in Arkansas listed in Mearline Norman's name.
"To hold otherwise would permit those with an interest before government to ply elected officials with money while avoiding detection under financial disclosure requirements by gifting the official's spouse under the guise of a 'financial deal,' "Fulford wrote.
She noted the state Ethics Commission has ruled a gift to a public official's spouse is an indirect gift that must be disclosed.
Mearline Norman testified at a hearing earlier this week that Ralph Hughes, who has since died, joined her in a business partnership to purchase the home and then split the profits 50-50 when it was sold although they never put the deal on paper.
Hughes contributed $500,000 to the investment while she contributed "sweat equity'' to its maintenance and paid $95,000 for a pair of boats, furniture and other personal items at the house.
Jim Norman did not list the house or boats on his financial disclosure form. The couple testified he knew nothing about her partnership with Hughes although they had visited the house together.
"The court finds this testimony patently absurd,'' Fulford wrote.