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Politics

Smith got speedy service

The county's purchase of his land didn't follow the "normal process," an official says.

By WILL VAN SANT and JONATHAN ABEL
Published July 26, 2007


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Hours after Property Appraiser Jim Smith called Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan in March to sound off about his "devastated" land, Duncan took a drive past the vacant parcel on his way home.

Duncan saw no evidence of the destruction Smith alleged county work crews committed doing flood repairs. Nonetheless, the chairman's decisions propelled the county's purchase forward.

Duncan is among a cast of public officials whose actions led the county to quickly buy Smith's parcel on Brooker Creek last month for $225,000.

But did any Pinellas officials break the law - criminal, ethical or civil?

That's among the questions a grand jury could be asked to consider today by Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

Details the grand jury could consider:

The county attorney represented Smith's private claim for free, meaning taxpayers covered the cost. County leaders pushed the deal forward despite doubts about Smith's claim or the property's value.

And in a sphere where claims against the county can take years to resolve, the County Commission approved buying Smith's property less than three months after he personally lobbied Duncan, the county administrator and the county attorney.

Duncan on Wednesday granted that Smith received unusually prompt, attentive treatment.

"There appears to be some undue pressure to expedite, to how can I say, move things to the head of the queue," Duncan said. "I can't say to you this was the normal process that we use to buy land."

Grand juries in Florida can investigate criminal activity. They can also investigate non-criminal ethical and legal violations. The state Supreme Court gives them the authority to investigate public offices to determine whether "good morals" are adhered to and whether officials have been "incompetent or lax in the performance of their duties."

This power means any official involved in the land sale - and its aftermath - could be subject to the grand jury's review.

Public officials may also face scrutiny directly from McCabe's office, which has the power to prosecute crimes.

It's against the law for a public official to use the influence of his office for personal gain. The crime, a second-degree felony, could carry 15 years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

Florida also has a code of ethics governing public officials and employees that bars them from using their positions to secure benefits or special privileges. It is enforced by the Florida Commission on Ethics, an appointed body that can impose penalties ranging from civil fines to removal from office.

But the commission can't investigate unless it receives a formal complaint from a citizen.

Other details an inquiry might examine, as recently reported by the St. Petersburg Times:

  •  County Attorney Susan Churuti and her office were key to the purchase. Four days after Smith's private lawyer threatened legal action, Churuti, at Smith's request, agreed to represent Smith's interests in his private claim against the county.

She told County Administrator Steve Spratt that the county was liable for damage to Smith's land. Spratt said that was the main reason to buy the lot, rather than repair it. Her staff also advised against delaying the June 29 closing after questions were raised.

The quick action came from an office that receives about 700 new cases each year. At any given time, about 900 are unresolved.

  • After a fuming Smith visited Spratt's office to complain about the alleged damage to his land, Charles Norwood, the county's head of Geographic Services, was sent to have a look the next day. That was Norwood's second visit. The day before, Norwood had been asked by a subordinate in Smith's office to assess building options at the vacant site. Norwood did so as a personal favor to the subordinate, Charles Dye.
  • The county said it last worked on Smith's property in early 2005, when crews operated throughout the Tarpon Woods area to remove 2004 hurricane debris. Smith complained in September 2005 of damage but never followed up until March. Duncan, when he drove by the property, said he saw no evidence of the destruction Smith alleged. But not having seen the property in any other condition, Duncan said he was unable to say Smith's claim was illegitimate.
  • Smith repeatedly told county leaders his land was destroyed. For the previous nine months, Smith priced the parcel at $400,000, pitching it as a "Beautiful Custom Home Site." He received no offers. In 2006, Smith's own office appraised the property at $59,400, roughly one-fourth what he sold it to the county for.

The appraiser, who was in the midst of a divorce, planned to use the county's payment toward a $497,000 home in Countryside.

Those whose actions may be investigated say they welcome the scrutiny, including Smith, 67. He did not return several calls Wednesday. This week, he vowed any inquiry would clear him.

"I think I will be totally vindicated," said Smith, the appraiser for 19 years. "I can't even possibly conceive of anything that I've done that was inappropriate."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 727-445-4166.

[Last modified July 26, 2007, 11:37:07]


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