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Activist seeks inquiry into land deal's ethics

His complaint? "Blatant influence peddling."

By WILL VAN SANT and THERESA BLACKWELL, Times Staff Writers
Published August 3, 2007


Bernie McCabe, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney walks to the grand jury room Thursday at the Pinellas County Criminal Court Complex in Largo.
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[Times photo | Douglas R. Clifford]
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[Times photo | Douglas R. Clifford]
Jan Herbst, Pinellas County's Director of Public Works, left, and Pete Yauch, Assistant County Administrator, center, walk to the grand jury room at the Pinellas County Criminal Court Complex in Largo to give testimony Thursday for the investigation into Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land deal with the county.

Even as a grand jury began investigating the Jim Smith land deal Thursday, a local activist asked for a second inquiry into the transaction's pivotal players.

St. Petersburg community activist Karl Nurse, past president of the city's Council of Neighborhood Associations, said he mailed a complaint asking the state Commission on Ethics to investigate the deal.

In his complaint, Nurse contends that Smith used his office for personal gain and questioned his successful effort to get County Attorney Susan Churuti to be his advocate.

"It's just sort of blatant influence peddling and it irritates me," said Nurse, 52. "I'll be happy to make him justify this."

The County Commission voted unanimously June 5 to spend $225,000 in Penny for Pinellas tax dollars to buy Smith's vacant lot on Brooker Creek. Smith has been county property appraiser for nearly 20 years, and his office had valued the lot for tax purposes at about a quarter of that amount.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe decided to convene the grand jury after the Times reported last month that Pinellas officials rushed the deal to completion.

Expedited negotiations came after Churuti agreed to represent Smith in his private claim alleging county work crews damaged his land while doing flood control work. Churuti also served as the county's representative during negotiations.

At the time, Smith let officials know that delaying the deal could complicate his closing on a private home in the Countryside area of Clearwater.

"This is clearly a series of actions that could only be taken by a public official who was attempting to use the power of his public office to enrich himself," Nurse said in his complaint. "No regular property owner would be successful in arguing for this kind of treatment."

Smith, 67, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday evening. He is scheduled to appear before the grand jury today.

Nurse is not the only one asking for inquiries.

The Florida Attorney General's Office said Thursday it had received three complaints about the controversy. The office declined to investigate, passing the complaints on to the Ethics Commission and the Governor's Office.

Once a complaint is filed, the Ethics Commission can't comment on it or even confirm that it exists unless the official named in the complaint agrees in writing to waive confidentiality.

If a public official is found to have violated the state code of ethics, possible penalties include impeachment, removal from office, public censure and reprimand, and a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation.

Testimony in the grand jury investigation began shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday in the Criminal Court Complex in Largo.

The jury worked throughout the day, save for a lunch break of roughly 45 minutes, and finished around 5 p.m.

Grand jury proceedings are closed to the public, and participants are barred from discussing what is said during their sessions.

Those seen entering the grand jury room included Ron Anderson, the top appraiser in Smith's office; John Holt of the county's highway department, which was involved in the work done on Smith's land in early 2005; Mark Pringle, a contractor who also worked on the property; and several people who live near Smith's former land in Tarpon Woods.

Assistant County Administrator Pete Yauch and public works director Jan Herbst were present, but the grand jury called it quits before taking testimony from them.

Charles Norwood, the county's director of geographic services, was the day's last witness. Documents suggest that, on orders from Yauch, Norwood worked to finish the deal quickly.

Yauch, in turn, has said County Administrator Steve Spratt and Churuti urged him to move swiftly.

Norwood is scheduled to continue his testimony today at 9 a.m. when the grand jury reconvenes. In addition to Smith, those scheduled to appear today include Spratt, Churuti and the seven members of the County Commission.

Times staff writer Jonathan Abel contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 727 445-4166.

[Last modified August 2, 2007, 23:37:16]


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