tampabay.com

Mired in an ethics swamp

By PHILIP GAILEY
Published July 29, 2007


Jim Smith must think taxpayers are fools, and they are if they let him, the county attorney and Pinellas commissioners get away with his sleazy land deal with the county. He has betrayed the public trust he holds and compromised the integrity of his office - and of county government - by using his insider connections for his own financial gain. And yet he has the gall to tell us he has done nothing "inappropriate."

We'll see what the grand jury has to say about that now that it has opened an investigation into the matter. Once the grand jury puts the key players in this sordid affair under oath, maybe we'll get to the truth. So far, no one seems to think that it's a big deal - not Smith, not County Attorney Susan Churuti, not the county commissioners who went along with this shakedown of county taxpayers. They all should be held accountable for their role in this scandal, by both the grand jury and by citizens who are used to being treated as a nuisance by these same officials.

According to Smith:

There was nothing "inappropriate" about Smith ranting and raving and threatening to sue the county for alledgedly damaging 1.5 acres of vacant, flood-prone land he owned, even though there is no convincing evidence the county did any such thing.

There was nothing "inappropriate" about Smith enlisting the county attorney's aid in fast-tracking, without a proper appraisal, the county's purchase of the property for $225,000, almost four times the value assessed by Smith's own office. Smith had put his "damaged" property on the market for $400,000 as a "Beautiful Custom Home Site." But when there were no takers, he demanded that the county purchase the property and got Churuti to throw her legal weight behind his claim. Smith, in the midst of a divorce, apparently needed money to buy a new $497,000 house in Countryside.

There was nothing "inappropriate" about Churuti, at his request, representing both the county and Smith as an individual without informing the commissioners or the county administrator of this egregious conflict of interest.

Nothing "inappropriate" about any of this, at least in Smith's mind. We now know how rotten his ethics are, and if he had any decency, he would resign and accept the disgrace he has brought to himself and his courthouse enablers.

But if he wants to insist that he did nothing "inappropriate," then let's play by his rules. Let his office, the county attorney and the commissioners treat ordinary citizens the same way they treated Smith, who, by the way, sets the value of the county's tax base.

Let Churuti and her large staff of lawyers extend to ordinary citizens the same considerations she extended to Smith. Any taxpayer with a claim against the county - and there are hundreds of them waiting to be heard - should be able to ask Churuti for legal assistance instead of having to pay thousands of dollars out of their own pockets. After all, it would not be "inappropriate," and Churuti obviously sees no conflict in representing both sides.

And let Smith's office give property owners who want to challenge their tax assessments the same deal they gave the boss - a tax appraisal that is one fourth of a property's market value. However, if Smith slams the door in their face, property owners by the hundreds, even thousands, should challenge their assessments before local appeals boards. In some states, angry taxpayers have overwhelmed the appeals process with challenges. I'm sure it won't come to this in Pinellas since Smith sees nothing "inappropriate" in the way his office assessed his property.

The first question the grand jury should ask Smith and his top aides is whether there was ever any discussion among them about appraising the value of the vacant property he sold to the county. Same question about the house he purchased after his divorce.

Jim Smith appears determined to hang on. And so does Churuti. The commissioners can't touch Smith, but they should have fired the county attorney the day this story broke in the Times. So far, however, the commissioners could be mistaken for potted plants in the way they have responded to Churuti's scandalous conduct.

Outraged citizens don't have to wait until the grand jury drains the ethics swamp in the Pinellas Courthouse to take action. Surely, somewhere in the county, there is a lawyer who is willing to ask the Florida Bar to investigate Churuti's conflict of interest in representing both the county and her friend Jim Smith. And surely there is a citizen in the county who is willing to file an ethics complaint against both Smith and Churuti with the Florida Commission on Ethics, which can impose penalties ranging from fines to removal from office.

I can assure you there is nothing "inappropriate" about citizens holding public officials accountable.