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Jim Smith confident after testimony

The Pinellas property appraiser says he expects to be exonerated.

By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published August 9, 2007


LARGO - Emerging from three hours inside the grand jury room Wednesday, Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith said he's taken some "good jabs" over the controversial sale of his private land to Pinellas County.

But Smith was confident he would be cleared and said he hopes to continue his decades-long political career. And he looks forward to answering critics after the grand jury finishes its work.

"I'm not a real silent sufferer," said Smith, a 67-year-old Republican who has held office for nearly 20 years. "To sit here and take it and not say anything back has been a hard thing for me to do. But we'll have our day."

Smith left the grand jury room at 5:30 p.m., accompanied by his Clearwater attorney, Sherwood Coleman. His appearance capped a day of testimony from a slew of county government heavyweights that began shortly after 9 a.m.

Those called to the stand included suspended County Attorney Susan Churuti, County Administrator Steve Spratt, who made his second appearance before the grand jury, and County Commissioners Calvin Harris and Bob Stewart.

The grand jury, which also heard testimony last week, is investigating the county's June 29 purchase of Smith's vacant lot on Brooker Creek for $225,000, nearly four times the tax value Smith's office assigned the land.

County leaders have acknowledged the transaction was unorthodox and happened too quickly. A deal was fast-tracked after Smith lobbied top officials, including County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan and Spratt, who said he was called back before the grand jury for further questions.

Playing a key role was Churuti, the county attorney since 1987. Churuti agreed to represent Smith in his claim that county work crews "devastated" his land doing flood control work after 2004 hurricanes. At the same time, she also represented the county's interest while the deal was being crafted.

But the full County Commission did not learn of her dual role in the negotiations until after the sale closed. Saying they had lost confidence in her judgment, county commissioners suspended Churuti with pay July 31 for the duration of the grand jury's investigation. She repeatedly declined to answer questions from reporters at the Courthouse Wednesday.

For their part, commission members have said they lacked important information when they unanimously approved the deal June 5. They say they understood the purchase of the lot to be critical for flood control in the Tarpon Woods area.

Smith first complained of damage to his land in September 2005, but he let the matter drop.

Then, for nine months, Smith had the lot on the market for $400,000, touting it as a "beautiful custom home site." He received no offers.

In March, he approached county leaders again, demanding action and suggesting a purchase would resolve his complaint.

During negotiations with the county, Smith also made it known that delays could complicate his purchase of a $497,000 private home in Countryside.

The county cut Smith a check for his Tarpon Woods property on June 29. He closed on his new Countryside home July 10.

Wednesday, Smith said that he got no favors at taxpayer expense.

"Not at all," he said. "I think the county got a pretty good deal."

The grand jury is scheduled to reconvene Aug. 23, when it is expected to determine a course of action. It could, if it wishes, call certain witnesses back.

"If they do want to hear from somebody, we'll bring them back in," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, whose office is directing the grand jury. "It's unlikely, but they could do that."

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