Pinellas failures all around

Published August 30, 2007

A grand jury report released Tuesday clearly chronicles the many ways Pinellas County government utterly failed taxpayers in its questionable purchase of private property owned by Property Appraiser Jim Smith. Now it is time to hold accountable those who violated the public's trust as they quietly conspired to appease a political insider interested only in personal gain.

There is plenty of blame to go around in the 22-page report, from Smith to County Attorney Susan Churuti to County Administrator Steve Spratt to the silent, complicit County Commission. Although the grand jury issued no criminal indictments, it was clearly disturbed by Smith's behavior and the county's ill-considered rush to buy his private property - actions that have led to what the report calls the "breath of scandal surrounding this affair."

The grand jury makes clear that Smith has acted in his own best interest rather than the public's for years. The presentment reveals that Smith lobbied one of his own staff appraisers to change the amount of upland assigned to the vacant 1.4-acre parcel on Tarpon Woods Boulevard he purchased in 1994 - a change that lowered the taxable value that year and subsequent years.

The grand jury also seems to doubt Smith's claim early this year that a county crew had "devastated" his property and destroyed its value while cleaning out a creek in late 2004 and early 2005, leading Smith to threaten to sue the county until it agreed to buy his entire parcel for $225,000. While the grand jury said county workers should not have entered Smith's property without his permission, it found no evidence they worked on the upland, or valuable, portion of his parcel. Smith's own office had valued the wetland portion, a little over one acre, at just $5,000 an acre.

As Smith threatened to sue and applied pressure to force the county to buy his land, he had a powerful ally in Churuti, the county attorney. She represents elected constitutional officers, Smith included, in their official capacities. But Churuti represented Smith in what the grand jury defined as his "private damage claim asserted in his individual capacity against the governmental entity Churuti was contractually and ethically bound to defend." That violates a state law, according to the presentment, and Churuti's explanation that she merely was clearing the way for others to negotiate rings hollow.

Churuti had Smith and County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan sign a waiver so she could "investigate" Smith's damage claim at his request, but the grand jury found she did little investigating. She did not even calculate the county's legal exposure or whether only the inexpensive wetland portion of Smith's property was the only part allegedly damaged. The grand jury found that virtually every week, Churuti asked County Administrator Spratt for updates on the Smith deal, leaving him feeling pressured to complete the deal. It calls Churuti's behavior "perplexing and misleading," and that sounds generous.

Spratt also is not without blame. He rushed the processing of the purchase, relied on a faulty appraisal to negotiate the price and did not tell all county commissioners everything he knew about the deal. His actions and judgment fall far below what is expected from a veteran county administrator.

The county commissioners also failed their constituents. The grand jury criticizes them for approving the Smith deal with no public discussion, which the presentment says "could have resulted in the exploration of other alternatives to purchasing the entire property and would have certainly reduced the specter of secrecy."

The grand jury's findings only strengthen the case that Smith and Churuti are unfit to continue in public service. Smith used his public office for personal gain, and he should resign instead of continuing to make excuses. If he doesn't leave now, it will be up to voters to toss him out next year.

Churuti also continues to defend her indefensible actions. If she does not resign, county commissioners should fire her and hire a county attorney more sensitive to both real and perceived conflicts.

As commissioners decide what to do with Spratt, they will have to weigh his serious mistakes against his overall performance and their own failures to scrutinize the Smith land deal. At least Spratt has written a public apology, taken responsibility and proposed corrective actions he will take if he keeps his job. Commissioners owe the public an apology as well, because their quick and silent approval of the land purchase confirms some observers' long-held belief that the county government is disinterested in transparency. But they will have to decide whether this incident has so compromised their relationships with the county administrator that they no longer can work together.