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State Attorney looks at Jim Smith land deal

By Will Van Sant, Times Staff Writer
Published July 24, 2007


CLEARWATER - Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe has launched an inquiry into Pinellas County's June 29 purchase of land owned by Property Appraiser Jim Smith. And he said he'll ask a grand jury Thursday if it wants to consider the matter.

McCabe said today that his inquiry will focus on both Smith and the actions of Pinellas government officials. The inquiry has no single direction, he said.

"I don't think I know enough right now to isolate," McCabe said. "So I think it's safe to say a broad examination of every aspect" of the deal is underway.

The St. Petersburg Times today revealed that County Attorney Susan Churuti represented both Pinellas and Smith, as a private land owner, in negotiations that led the county to buy a 1.5 acre parcel from Smith for $225,000.

The county's offer came after Smith, 67, directly appealed to several county officials about flood control work county crews did on his land, which straddles Brooker Creek. He said the work destroyed the land, and in March his attorney threatened to sue the county.

The county contends it last worked on Smith's property in early 2005, when crews operated throughout the Tarpon Woods area doing flood repairs after the 2004 hurricanes.

Smith, the elected appraiser for 19 years, knew of the activity then but took no action.

Smith complained to the county about his "devastated" land, once pitched as a "Beautiful Custom Home Site," only after it sat on the market for nine months without an offer. Experts hired by the county recommended obtaining a civil survey and water study of the property to best determine its value, but the county did neither before agreeing to a price with Smith.

After today's revelation in the Times, County Administrator Steve Spratt said Churuti was wrong to have represented Smith as an individual. He said he did not know of her work on Smith's behalf until last week. Spratt said he welcomes McCabe's inquiry.

"I think it's important that that be done," he said. "And they will have my full cooperation."