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Grand jury critical of Smith

A report on the appraiser's land deal recommends changes in how his office is run.

By WILL VAN SANT, JONATHAN ABEL and THERESA BLACKWELL, Times Staff Writers
Published August 29, 2007


A grand jury report released Tuesday concludes that the "breath of scandal" surrounding Pinellas County's purchase of Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land will leave a "lasting impact" on how citizens view their government.

While the grand jury found no evidence that public officials "maliciously abused" their positions, it concluded that several officials, including county commissioners, helped foster the "clear public perception" that Smith received favorable treatment because of his status.

The 22-page report, known as a presentment, is especially critical of Smith and suspended County Attorney Susan Churuti, whose actions are described as "perplexing and misleading." Changes in how both Churuti and Smith's offices do business are recommended.

The grand jury said it scrutinized the purchase "as a direct result of investigative reports in the St. Petersburg Times." Its report suggested that what should have been the normal, objective process was short-circuited by "rushed appraisals, confused attorney loyalties or the failure to consider all appropriate alternatives." Specifically, it concluded that:

- No one in Churuti's office tried to gauge the county's potential financial liability after Smith complained in March that county work crews had damaged his vacant lot on Brooker Creek while doing flood control work after the 2004 hurricanes.

- While the county violated Smith's property rights by entering the lot, the grand jury found no "credible evidence" that work crews were responsible for the "devastation" Smith alleged had been done to his land.

- Smith brought his claim against the county as a private citizen, not in his capacity as an elected official. It was Churuti's job to make "unmistakably clear" to Smith that she could not represent him under those circumstances. But in agreeing to represent both Smith and the county in discussions of his claim, she undermined confidence in her ability to provide "unbiased legal advice free from disclosed or undisclosed conflict."

- The appraisal used to arrive at a sales price of $225,000 was full of "red flags." The appraiser made only a "cursory inspection of the land," admitted a lack of expertise evaluating wetlands and used a questionable estimate of the amount of uplands, buildable area key to establishing value.

e_SBltTwo years before Smith bought the parcel in 1994, his office had classified the land entirely as wetlands. The year he bought it, his office estimated it was 32 percent uplands and put its taxable value at $22,500. One year later, after Smith met with the staff member assigned to set the assessment on his property, the amount of uplands was trimmed to 16 percent and the taxable value placed at $14,500.

- On June 6, the day after the County Commission voted unanimously to approve the purchase at $225,000, nearly quadruple the amount Smith's office had given the lot for tax purposes, Smith "incredibly" provided a lower value to the Commission on Ethics in a financial disclosure report: $179,800.

- County Administrator Steve Spratt, whom Churuti advised to quickly resolve Smith's complaint through a purchase, urged the County Commission to buy the property to help fight flooding in the Tarpon Woods area. While the 1.5-acre lot may provide the county parking and access to Brooker Creek during storm events, the report concludes that "its utility in preventing recurrent flooding is wholly speculative and hotly debated" by the county's own experts.

- County officials failed to conduct any public discussion of such a sensitive purchase from a fellow elected official.

In one sarcastic touch, the grand jury said it wasn't clear whether county officials used all available information in their "negotiations" for Smith's land. The jury's report used the quotation marks around negotiations.

On Tuesday, Spratt said that the sale had reflected poorly on the county and that officials will need to take steps to prevent such gaffes in the future. The county may have acted hastily, he said, but it was still a good purchase, at a defensible price.

"If we went back in and did more analysis of developable land," said the 52-year-old Spratt, "you may come up with a different number."

The report describes at length the difficulty in explaining the five-fold difference between the estimate of buildable land the county used to put a value on the land and the amount of uplands recognized on the property by Smith's office. Also, the report notes that for comparison purposes, the appraiser evaluating Smith's property for the County Commission looked at four properties, none of which had wetlands and one that was in a gated community.

Smith, 67 and elected appraiser since 1988, first complained about damage to his land in late July to early September 2005. He dropped the matter and did not come forward to the county seeking relief until March. The report found no "credible, satisfactory" explanation for the delay or for why land Smith described as "devastated" was for sale from July 2006 through December as "beautiful custom home site," with an asking price of $400,000.

Tuesday night, Smith said he didn't agree with everything in the presentment, but figured it would be in the public interest not to challenge it.

"I would hope that it would spur some constructive reform with the county and how they deal with things," he said.

Smith said he couldn't specify what was wrong with the presentment because he still faced ethics commission proceedings.

Smith said he hoped this was the "first step in getting the true story."

Asked if he intended to resign, Smith said, "Why would I resign?"

In a written statement, Churuti, 52, denied any wrongdoing and said that responsibility for the purchase lay largely with Spratt and that she welcomed scrutiny of her role.

"I have cooperated fully and testified truthfully," she said. "Over the past 27 years, I have put the best interests of Pinellas County first and will continue to do so if given the opportunity."

County Commissioner Ken Welch, however, said it's time for Pinellas to part ways with the veteran attorney.

"I believe it's time for us to move in a different direction," Welch said. "There is a certain trust that has to exist between the commissioners and the county attorney, and as far as I'm concerned that level of trust doesn't exist."

Welch and his commission colleagues are criticized for not having discussed Smith's ownership of the property openly when they voted for the sale.

The report recommends that county employees be given "concise, but comprehensive" instructions on when they may enter private property during emergencies and that the office responsible for real estate purchases be taken out from under the wing of the Public Works Department.

It also suggests that the County Commission review Pinellas' charter and decide whether continuing to provide legal counsel to Constitutional Offices such as the property appraiser is wise.

Finally, the report asks lawmakers representing Pinellas in the Legislature to consider requiring an independent review of assessments on all properties in Florida in which county property appraisers have an interest.

The County Commission will meet next on Sept. 4.

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