Smith deal's effect murky

The fallout from a grand jury report could spread wide in county government.

By WILL VAN SANT and JONATHAN ABEL, Times Staff Writers
Published August 25, 2007

Don't think top Pinellas leaders are celebrating now that a grand jury has decided against issuing criminal indictments in the Jim Smith land deal.

The heat is still on:

- A lawyer for Smith, Pinellas County's elected property appraiser, says Smith won't fight the release of the grand jury's sealed report. But his own political party sees him as damaged.

- County Administrator Steve Spratt was named in the report, his attorney confirmed Friday. Spratt hasn't said whether he'll fight the report's release. But it could be bad if he does, County Commissioner Ken Welch said.

- Welch also said he has problems with suspended County Attorney Susan Churuti that go beyond what the grand jury might have found. And Churuti's handling of the Smith land purchase has attracted the attention of the Florida Bar.

Who pays the steepest professional and political cost will be determined largely by the report from the grand jury, which can investigate not only criminal conduct but whether officials have acted competently and with "good morals."

The grand jury's report, or presentment, can criticize officials by name and recommend government reforms.

In this case, jurors scrutinized the County Commission's decision to buy 1.5 acres of land from Smith for $225,000, four times the property tax assessment by Smith's own office.

Grand jurors swore to "diligently inquire" into the case without fear or favor, and no official wants to take a hit in a presentment.

"If I were a public official, I would not feel very secure," said Tony DiMatteo, head of the Pinellas Republican Party. "God knows what's in those papers."

Under state law, those named in presentments get a copy. They then have 15 calendar days to file a legal challenge if they want to suppress critical comments. To succeed, they must convince a judge that a finding is not based on fact. All those named must decline to challenge before the document can be made public.

Smith's attorney, Sherwood Coleman, said Friday his client would not try to keep the presentment sealed. But he advised Smith not to comment because the report remains confidential.

David Parry, Spratt's attorney, said he wants a "reasonable amount of time" to review the report and does not want to proceed until he knows what others named are doing.

Spratt said he looks forward to discussing the presentment but declined to comment further until Parry advises him otherwise. Spratt said he wants to keep his job.

"I've always maintained that I want to serve the county," he said. "There are many important things I want to be spending my time on."

That means Spratt must regain his footing with the County Commission.

On July 31, the day Churuti was suspended, Commissioner Karen Seel also sought to suspend Spratt but could not get the support of her colleagues. Seel declined comment Friday.

It wouldn't help Spratt's case with Welch - or Churuti's if she is named in the report - to try to prevent public disclosure of the full presentment.

"I'd have a hard time understanding why one of our employees would ask for those details to be removed," Welch said.

Welch also is upset about Churuti representing both Smith and the county in the land transaction without fully disclosing her dual role to the commission until well after the sale closed.

"I've publicly stated my frustration with the way this was handled in terms of the lack of disclosure from the county attorney," Welch said. "I've got issues above and beyond any conclusions that the grand jury may have come to."

Churuti has refused to comment on the case, and her attorney did not return calls Friday.

Churuti also faces potential obstacles from the Florida Bar.

On Friday, Linda Lyman, the branch manager for the bar's Tampa office, confirmed that a grievance file had been opened into Churuti's involvement in the Smith land purchase.

The file was opened July 27, prompted by articles in the St. Petersburg Times. No decision whether to proceed will be made until the report is made public.

If the bar does investigate Churuti, she could face a range of penalties including permanent disbarment, said spokeswoman Zannah Lyle from the bar's Tallahassee headquarters. But Lyle cautioned that the case was in its earliest stages.

Residents also have filed complaints against Churuti, Spratt, Smith and several commissioners with the state Commission on Ethics.

As for Smith, the 67-year-old appraiser who has held office since 1988, the political prognosis is tough. He has said he'll run again in 2008.

In 1996, 2000 and 2004, Smith was unchallenged, but now local Democrats have his seat in their sights, and he is not guaranteed the support of the local GOP.

"He's damaged," DiMatteo said. "Because you are an incumbent, you don't automatically get the endorsement of the Republican Party."

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


The Smith deal

September 2005: Jim Smith first complains the county damaged his 1.5-acre lot on Brooker Creek doing flood control work.

2006: Smith bills his land as a "beautiful custom home site" for $400,000. In nine months, he gets no offers.

March: Smith approaches county leaders again, demanding action and suggesting a purchase would resolve his complaint.

March: County officials, including Administrator Steve Spratt and commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan, put the sale on a fast track. County Attorney Susan Churuti agrees to represent both the county and Smith in negotiations.

June 5: Commissioners vote unanimously to buy the land for $225,000, nearly four times what Smith's office assessed it for taxes.