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Grand jury: No crime in Smith case

The report on a county land deal stays sealed, for now.

By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2007


A state grand jury authorized to investigate whether county officials were "incompetent or lax" in buying land owned by Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith issued its report Thursday.

The report, called a presentment, will remain sealed - at least for now.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said the report's findings were appropriate given the facts presented to the grand jury, which did not find evidence of a crime.

Jurors heard from more than 40 witnesses, including Smith, County Attorney Susan Churuti, County Administrator Steve Spratt and all seven county commissioners.

"There was a lot for them to digest and chew on," McCabe said.

McCabe's office found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing before referring the case to the grand jury. Grand juries have broader investigative powers than state attorneys and can examine noncriminal ethical and legal violations.

The land deal came to light after the St. Petersburg Times reported that commissioners voted unanimously on June 5 to buy 1.5 acres that Smith owned in East Lake. The county paid $225,000, nearly four times what Smith's office assessed the land for tax purposes.

County officials, including Spratt and Duncan, had put the purchase on a fast track.

And Churuti represented both the county and Smith in the negotiations leading up to the deal, which most commissioners did not know until after they approved the purchase. Commissioners voted July 31 to suspend Churuti with pay while the grand jury scrutinized the deal.

Reached at home Thursday, Churuti declined to comment. Smith, 67, did not return calls to his cell phone seeking comment. He has previously denied seeking special treatment from the county. Spratt likewise did not return calls Thursday.

 

Suspension stands

County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan said it was premature to decide whether Churuti should be asked back to her job.

"Not being able to see the presentment until it's made public," Duncan said, "I think we'll have to keep operating as we're operating."

The grand jury issued its report shortly after 3 p.m. Smith was scheduled to appear at a 5:30 p.m. gathering of mortgage brokers in Feather Sound.

Smith didn't appear but sent his chief appraiser, Ron Anderson. The good news, Anderson told the crowd, was that Smith and Churuti were not indicted.

The bad news, he said, was that Smith couldn't attend the event because he had to read and deal with a sealed document related to the case.

By law, the presentment will be sealed from the public so those named in the report can read it.

From the time they receive the report, officials will have 15 days to file a motion to suppress any critical comments they want to remain sealed. McCabe's office began delivering the report Thursday. McCabe declined to say who was getting a copy.

 

What the jury studied

The events scrutinized by the grand jury stem from flooding caused by the hurricanes of 2004.

In September 2005, Smith first complained that the county had damaged his property on Brooker Creek while doing flood control work, but he dropped the matter. Then, for nine months, Smith tried to sell the land, described as a "beautiful custom home site," for $400,000. He got 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 made it known that delays in their purchase of his land could complicate his deal to buy a $497,000 house in Countryside.

Duncan signed off on Churuti representing both the county and Smith, but most commissioners didn't know of her dual role until weeks after the deal closed on June 29.

In suspending Churuti, commissioners said they had lost confidence in her judgment.

 

Controversy continues

Those involved could have headaches other than just what may appear in the report.

Residents have sent the Florida Commission on Ethics complaints against Smith, County Administrator Steve Spratt, and commissioners Bob Stewart, Ken Welch and Karen Seel.

Once a complaint is filed, the Ethics Commission can't comment on it or even confirm its existence unless officials waive their right to confidentiality.

Smith, a Republican who is paid $149,604 a year and has been property appraiser since 1988, has said he intends to run for re-election in 2008. Leaders of Pinellas' Democratic and Republican parties say several potential candidates are considering challenging Smith, who was unopposed in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

Despite the lack of a criminal charge against Smith, and uncertainty over whether the report criticizes him, Pinellas Democratic Party chairwoman Toni Molinaro said Smith is likely to face opposition next year.

"It's very obvious there were some things that happened that shouldn't have happened," Molinaro said.

"Public trust has been taken advantage of."

 

Staff Writer Jonathan Abel contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.