Jim Smith property deal | The story so far
By the Times staff
Published July 29, 2007
Smith buys land
Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith buys a 1.5-acre wooded parcel in the Tarpon Woods area of East Lake for $15,000 in 1994. The property straddles Brooker Creek.
Crews clear land
Always prone to flooding, the Tarpon Woods area is particularly in trouble after the 2004 hurricane season. County crews work the area, including Smith's property, in early 2005, clearing falling trees and sediment from Brooker Creek. Smith complains about the work on his property, which he says included cutting trees and deepening a creek channel. The county apologizes but denies cutting trees.
Smith looks to sell
In July 2006, Smith lists the property for $400,000, marketing it as a "Beautiful Custom Home Site." He gets no offers. Eleven months later, the county buys the property for $225,000, saying it will be used for flood control work.
Times examines deal
On July 4, the St. Petersburg Times reports the land purchase, revealing that Smith was paid nearly quadruple what his own office had assessed the property at for tax purposes. The paper also reports that the county, despite experts' advice, never obtained a civil survey of the property or considered flooding before negotiating with Smith. What's more, its legal staff urged the county to close on the deal June 29 despite an incomplete internal audit.
At a July 10 meeting, county commissioners order County Administrator Steve Spratt to investigate the deal. Three days later, Spratt releases a 10-page report that will later be shown to have key omissions.
Times uncovers more
Stories detail interaction among Smith, county officials and County Attorney Susan Churuti that went far deeper than what Spratt reported to the public July 13:
- The county's interest in the property was initiated March 8 when Smith confronted Spratt and Charles Norwood, the county's director of Geographic Services, complaining that county workers had "destroyed" his property.
- Smith contacted Churuti and Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan around March 16. Within a week, Duncan agreed to let Churuti represent both the county and Smith in negotiations.
- Spratt said Churuti never told him she was also representing Smith, which he now says is "a problem." Further, Spratt said he relied on her advice that because crews went on Smith's property without his permission, the county was legally liable for damage there.
Grand jury investigates
A Pinellas County grand jury, at State Attorney Bernie McCabe's request, agrees to launch an investigation. The proceedings, which the public cannot attend, begin Thursday.