Deal is jolt amid calm

A controversial land deal disrupts a longtime peace in the running of Pinellas.

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Published July 29, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Pinellas County just doesn't do controversy.

Courthouse bureaucrats stay put for decades. Elected officials don't shout at each other. County commissioners settle in - none has lost re-election since 1992. The county administrator has been in office five years, replacing one who served 22.

But the government with so many unanimous votes and so little acrimony now faces a grand jury. The County Commission's swift and silent vote to purchase Property Appraiser Jim Smith's private land has prompted an official investigation.

The seven commissioners voted unanimously June 5 to buy Smith's 1.5-acre East Lake property for $225,000. County Administrator Steve Spratt oversaw the buy.

The pair at the heart of the controversy are two county government veterans: Susan Churuti, county attorney for 20 years, and Smith, appraiser for 18 years. Last week came the revelation that Churuti quietly represented Smith's private interests in the land deal at the same time she was representing the county.

After two decades of public service, both are skilled in the subtle mechanics of courthouse process and politics. But in some ways the two are opposites.

Smith found his profession through politics.

Churuti found politics through her profession.

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Jim Smith's political career was seeded at a 1970s cocktail party. A partygoer, a Democratic state representative, explained his re-election plans. Smith's reaction: "So doggone liberal."

Smith, a Republican, asked how such a liberal ever got elected. "Well, if you don't like it, run against me," the legislator shot back.

He did and won in 1978. Smith, a manufacturer's representative for companies that sold technical equipment, was a Minnesota native raised in Indiana who had three daughters. He had served on a Navy submarine and attended five colleges, but did not finish a degree.

For four years, Smith represented the Clearwater area in the state House, launching a political career in which he never stopped running for office. He ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 1982, drawing criticism that he was attempting to capitalize on the popularity of another Jim Smith, who was then attorney general.

He ran for Pinellas property appraiser in 1984 and lost. He ran again for secretary of state in 1986 and lost. His fortune turned in 1988 when he ran again for property appraiser.

An opponent in the Republican primary called Smith "basically a loser" who was "running on the Jim Smith of Tallahassee's name." But Smith beat that man and successfully challenged Ron Schultz, the only remaining Democrat in a countywide office, who now is a Republican House member from Homosassa.

Already a figure in local Republican politics, Smith became a courthouse fixture, hiring a team of professionals and delegating many day-to-day duties to them.

"Most of the work we did was with Pam," said former County Administrator Fred Marquis, referring to chief deputy appraiser Pam Dubov. "He was predominately in the political circuit, where Pam was in the operational."

Smith is a political natural, a gregarious man who handshakes his way through a room. Not that he has needed to hit the campaign trail much in his current job, because he was re-elected without opposition in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

But some say he is also strong-minded, a trait that apparently revealed itself to several county leaders as he lobbied them in March about the damage to his property by flood control work crews.

"I've known Jim since he was a legislator," said former Commissioner Sallie Parks. "He was a good man then and a good man now. He tends to be a little stubborn and very adamant about his views but ... he's always a man of high integrity."

County Geographic Services director Charles Norwood said that when he saw Smith at the property March 8, Smith was "yelling madder than the devil about what the county had done. He was really mad. I wasn't going to talk to him."

Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan and County Administrator Steve Spratt also said Smith was incredibly angry in their first discussions with him about the property.

"I'm not a silent sufferer," Smith said last week.

He is also an artist, a father and a grandfather. He has five grown children from his first two marriages and five grandchildren. This month, Smith, 67, divorced his third wife, retired Judge Catherine Harlan.

"Judge me not on anything I do but as a parent, and I'll be happy," Smith said. "I care more about how my kids judge me than anybody else."

Smith's other passion is sculpting. Among his works is a piece in the courthouse garden, a bronze bas-relief image of the late Dorothy Ruggles, a friend and former supervisor of elections who died of cancer. Churuti is among the people who have bought his sculptures.

But Smith said the two, who have both worked at the courthouse for decades, don't socialize together. When Smith became property appraiser, Churuti had recently been named county attorney.

He has said he'll run for re-election, despite the current controversy. Or, he allowed last week, "this may be just the thing to put me over the edge."

And maybe he'll write a novel -- one that features an overzealous reporter who ruins lives and "eventually gets somebody executed that they find out later wasn't guilty."

So sure of his lack of wrongdoing, Smith said he called Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe this month and suggested that his office look into the land deal so Smith's name would be cleared.

Smith said McCabe declined, saying he didn't see anything to investigate.

Then, on Tuesday, McCabe called to let him know an inquiry had begun, Smith said.

"I should have listened to you before," Smith said McCabe told him.

McCabe recalls essentially the same conversations and said, "Had I known two weeks ago what I knew Monday, I would have started an investigation."

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Some government officials are such magnets for controversy, you wonder, "What will it be next time?"

But people who know County Attorney Susan Churuti say that's not her. She couldn't have survived two decades of advising politicians if she had a blind eye to ethics, they said. Her job is to spot problems coming and help commissioners avoid them.

Parks, the former commissioner, said Churuti "is a woman of high integrity and ethics and always is on the side of caution." Parks and several others with experience in local government said they don't believe Churuti would have done anything improper.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Anthony Rondolino, a longtime friend of Churuti and her husband, Bob, said he would have entrusted her to be guardian of his children if the need had ever arisen.

Some are surprised Churuti is in a situation where there can be even a perception of cronyism.

"I really was surprised that she would do anything for any kind of a personal anything," said former County Clerk Karleen DeBlaker.

Churuti, 52, grew up in St. Petersburg, the eldest child of physician John Hamilton. The Hamilton family recently exchanged a block of prime downtown St. Petersburg property to developer Opus South for retail space and seven units in two downtown condominium complexes. Churuti and her husband live in one of the high-rise condos.

She's a cum laude English and history graduate of the College of William and Mary, and her law degree is from Washington and Lee University. She was hired in 1981, 26 years ago, by the Pinellas County attorney's office. She rose to the top job in 1987.

Marquis, the former county administrator, said he and Churuti had a pact as they worked together: "On the outside there was nothing but harmony."

In reality of course, the two sometimes disagreed. "We would either go into my office or her office. ... We'd arm wrestle, but when we came out we presented a united front. We never aired that publicly."

The question now is whether the powers that be in the courthouse united too closely, and whether the land deal that won approval without comment from commissioners -- but with assistance from the county attorney -- amounted to a favor that Smith won because of his position in county government.

The grand jury meets on Thursday.

Times staff writers Will Van Sant and Paul Swider contributed to this report.