Pinellas county attorney suspended over Smith land deal
She will be on leave during a grand jury investigation.
By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published August 1, 2007
Pinellas County commissioners suspended County Attorney Susan Churuti on Tuesday, saying they had lost confidence in her because of her role in a land deal now the focus of a grand jury investigation.
The commission voted unanimously to put Churuti, 52, on administrative leave for the duration of the grand jury's work. The jury convenes Thursday. Its investigation is expected to take several days to a few weeks.
During her suspension, Churuti, the county attorney for 20 years, will be paid her salary of $193,015 a year.
Churuti has been under fire since the St. Petersburg Times revealed that before the county's purchase of Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land for $225,000 last month, she had agreed to represent Smith after he alleged the county damaged his lot while doing flood control work.
Churuti served as Smith's lawyer while the controversial purchase was being negotiated, even as she represented the County Commission in the deal. She did not reveal her dual role to the full commission until July 19, roughly three weeks after the sale closed.
"I cannot tell you how disturbed I am to be facing a grand jury" because the county attorney failed to disclose information, County Commissioner Ken Welch said before the vote. "My faith in my county attorney ... is irretrievably shaken."
With the grand jury looming, Churuti has told the Times she would not answer questions. She was not at Tuesday's meeting, nor did she return a call to her home after work hours.
During her suspension, Senior Assistant County Attorney Jim Bennett will serve as county attorney.
County Commissioner Karen Seel also wanted to suspend County Administrator Steve Spratt, who pushed his staff to negotiate and complete the deal quickly. Spratt has said Churuti's office urged him to move fast.
"I feel that full disclosure was not made by either party," Seel said, referring to Churuti and Spratt. "I don't think I can retrieve that faith."
But no other commissioners would go that far. Welch said Spratt had answered his questions about the deal shortly before the commission approved the purchase June 5. And County Commissioner Calvin Harris said getting rid of the administrator while next year's budget is being developed was unwise.
Commissioner Susan Latvala urged restraint, saying the controversy had caused her "many sleepless nights and great pain." Latvala said she wanted to avoid taking drastic action until after the grand jury was finished.
Spratt, Churuti, Smith, the County Commission and at least 15 Pinellas employees are expected to appear before the grand jury.
County leaders have acknowledged that the purchase of Smith's 1.5-acre vacant lot was peculiar. Pinellas paid nearly four times the value Smith's own office had assigned the property for tax purposes.
The deal came after Smith intensely lobbied several top officials, his private attorney threatened a lawsuit and Churuti agreed to represent both sides.
Smith told county leaders his land had been "devastated." But for the previous nine months the property was for sale for $400,000, pitched as a "Beautiful Custom Home Site." Pushing for a speedy deal, Smith let officials know he hoped to use a check from the county toward the purchase of a $497,000 private home in Countryside.
Smith closed on that home July 10.
New details about the deal continued to emerge Tuesday, giving a more complete picture of who knew what when and who was pushing for a fast transaction.
On March 23, Assistant County Administrator Pete Yauch wrote an e-mail to Public Works director Jan Herbst. Yauch wrote that Spratt understood Smith's offer on the property to be $200,000. He asked Herbst whether owning the property could be of any benefit to stormwater control in the area.
The flood control value of the property would become one of the county's key defenses of the deal.
Two days prior, Spratt met with Churuti in the morning and with Churuti and Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan in the afternoon. Churuti's meeting notes include a reference to a "Jim Smith update. $200,000." Monday, Spratt told the Times he could not recall a price being mentioned around that time.
Asked about Yauch's e-mail Tuesday, Spratt said he must have "recollected inappropriately."
In a Tuesday interview after the commission had suspended Churuti, Yauch said Spratt had directed him to move forward on the Smith purchase quickly. As the deal neared completion, he said Churuti reached out to him and asked that the closing be moved forward.
The controversy, Yauch said, weighs heavily on county employees.
"Our attention is diverted," he said. "And there is a great deal of concern about where things are going."
Duncan, the commission chairman, was aware of the dual role Churuti played in the negotiations from the beginning and never informed his colleagues. He has said he did not think that a purchase of Smith's property was the only option available and was unaware of the scope of Churuti's activities.
Yet documents indicate Duncan took a keen interest in the negotiations, checking with staff for updates.
Tuesday, he said Pinellas leaders had much to do to restore the public's faith.
"This is a dark hour in the history of our county," Duncan said.
Will Van Sant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4166.