Keep after this scandal

A Times Editorial
Published August 25, 2007

A grand jury's decision that criminal indictments are not warranted in its probe of a shady land deal between Pinellas County and Property Appraiser Jim Smith does not clear officials of wrongdoing. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe apparently did not uncover criminal behavior before taking the case to the grand jury, so the panel's decision Thursday was not unexpected.

What's important is that the grand jury did issue a presentment, a legal document that may be used to report and criticize misbehavior of a non-criminal nature by government officials. A presentment can draw back the veil that conceals unethical, deceitful or other improper official behavior from the public, which can result in positive change and help voters do their duty at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, the contents of a presentment remain sealed until those named in it have an opportunity to read it and file motions with the court to suppress all or portions of it. A judge rules on the motion, and the judge's decision can be appealed, potentially postponing for months the public's opportunity to read the grand jury's conclusions and recommendations. Pinellas officials named in the presentment surely will not want to unnecessarily delay such an agonizing chapter in the county government's history. This investigation should be about exposing the inner workings of county government to the light, not keeping them in the shadows.

While the grand jury process proceeds, the Florida Commission on Ethics also has important work to do. Residents have filed formal complaints against Smith, County Administrator Steve Spratt and a majority of the county commissioners. With Smith and four members of the County Commission scheduled to run for re-election next year, it is important that the Commission on Ethics promptly conduct a thorough investigation, firmly penalize any wrongdoers and clear those who are not guilty of ethical lapses.

The Smith scandal already has exposed problems throughout Pinellas County government. While the process of digging out and correcting those shortcomings is upsetting for Pinellas residents and officials, better government that functions in the public's best interest would be an outcome worth the pain. The grand jury has completed its work, and we look forward to reading its findings. But the ultimate conclusions will be made by Pinellas voters.