Appraiser's land deal got early help

New documents fill in details and dispute officials' version.

Published July 31, 2007

Pinellas County leaders have repeatedly tried to paint last month's purchase of Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land as deliberate and in the public interest, omitting key details to fit their story line.

Three days before a grand jury convenes to consider the deal, new documents obtained Monday by the St. Petersburg Times show once again that the full story has yet to emerge.

The documents suggest greater and earlier involvement by the highest echelons of county government than previously disclosed. County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan made multiple inquiries to mid level staff handling the issue. And Smith joked about the deal in a handwritten note to County Attorney Susan Churuti.

On or before March 21, Smith's secretary sent a real estate flier that for months Smith had used unsuccessfully to market his East Lake lot as a $400,000 "Beautiful Custom Home Site."

Smith added: "Know Any Buyers?? Ha."

Contrary to previous accounts, top-level officials were considering purchasing the land about a week after March 13 when Smith's private attorney suggested the deal would settle Smith's claim that county work crews had "devastated" his lot during flood control work, documents indicate.

When presented with details that counter their earlier statements, county leaders Monday offered no explanation or said they were unable to recall certain events.

"I hardly remember doing that," Smith said Monday when contacted by a reporter about the flier he sent Churuti. "It was after the fact."

Smith, after being told related documents show the flier was sent months before the deal closed, hung up the phone.

March 21 meeting

Today, the County Commission will consider hiring outside legal representation for the grand jury's inquiry into the deal, which paid Smith $225,000 for a property his office appraised at a quarter that value.

Much of the effort to buy the Smith property can be traced to March 21, when Churuti, County Administrator Steve Spratt and Duncan held their regular weekly meeting.

Churuti and Spratt met at 11 a.m.; Duncan joined them at 1 p.m.

The meeting came just two days after Churuti had drafted documents signed by Smith and Duncan that effectively made her legal counsel for both Smith's private claim and the County Commission.

Churuti's notes from one of those March 21 meetings, obtained Monday, includes the following: "Jim Smith update. $200,000."

Where that figures comes from, which weeks later would be the first offer Pinellas made to Smith, is unclear. Churuti has declined to talk to the Times since State Attorney Bernie McCabe announced the grand jury would investigate.

Both Spratt and Duncan have said it was not until at least nine days later, after the county had found that owning Smith's lot would be beneficial to flood mitigation in the Tarpon Woods area, that a purchase was seriously pursued. Monday, neither man could remember Churuti raising the $200,000 figure on March 21.

"I don't recall that conversation," Duncan said. "It was never my understanding that buying the property was the sole option on the table."

The following day, March 22, Duncan wrote Spratt an e-mail: "I know that we spoke about Tarpon Woods. Can someone from real estate or public works provide me with the appraised value of the property? Thanks."

Duncan's request was forwarded to Charles Norwood, the county's director of geographic services, with a note from the secretary for public works director Jan Herbst: "Jan needs to know you are on this asap."

Duncan on Monday said his inquiry referred to the county's interest in acquiring part of the Tarpon Woods golf course for flood mitigation, not Smith's property. Spratt too said he understood Duncan to be asking about the golf course.

But that's not what Norwood thought. In a memorandum Norwood wrote this month to his bosses providing a time line of his involvement in the Smith purchase, he notes the following: "March 22, 2007: Ronnie Duncan inquires about the appraised values on the Smith property."

"I don't know why Charlie Norwood would make that statement," Duncan said Monday. "I don't have an answer for that."

Norwood has declined to answer questions from the Times due to the grand jury inquiry.

'Directive from above'

Three more times, Norwood's memo mentions Duncan: On March 30, Duncan met with Norwood. Also that day, Norwood's boss, Herbst, asked him "What my position was with Ronnie Duncan." Then, April 5, Duncan asked for an update.

The time line indicates that was the same day Assistant County Administrator Pete Yauch asked Norwood when appraisals would be completed so he could inform Smith.

Duncan denied giving the Smith purchase special attention.

"I took no more interest in this than I would have in anybody else who might have had a similar issue," he said.

On April 11, Norwood's time line points toward pressure from top government officials: "Pete (Yauch) directs we accelerate the appraisal, even if we have to pay a premium. Directive from above."

Spratt said he may have been the one "from above."

"We were being pressed to settle the matter," Spratt said of the period, "largely by the (county) attorney's office."

Churuti gave Spratt a copy of the personalized Smith real estate flier. March 21, the same day Spratt met with Churuti and Duncan, Spratt forwarded the flier to Yauch with a note:

"Pete, Need to discuss asap. This is J. Smith property."

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

Time line

The following are excerpts from a time line, dated July 23, that Charles Norwood, Pinellas' director of geographic services, compiled on the purchase of County Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land.

"Della" refers to County Administrator Steve Spratt's assistant Della Klug. Jorge Quintas is a Public Works Department engineering director. "Pete" refers to Assistant County Administrator Pete Yauch.

March 9, 2007: Della phoned-Smith is upset. I visited the site myself.

March 22, 2007: Ronnie Duncan inquires about the appraised values on the Smith property.

March 30, 2007: Jorge Quintas and Charlie Norwood met with Ronnie Duncan.

March 30, 2007: Jan Herbst asks what my position was with Ronnie Duncan.

April 5, 2007: Pete asks schedule for completion of appraisal, so he can update Smith.

April 11, 2007: Pete directs we accelerate the appraisal, even if we have to pay a premium. Directive from above.