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Commission fires county attorney

Pinellas County Administator Steve Spratt receives a reprimand.

By WILL VAN SANT and JONATHAN ABEL, Times Staff Writers
Published September 5, 2007


Pinellas County commissioners Tuesday fired their top legal adviser, making Susan Churuti the most prominent casualty yet of the controversial Jim Smith land deal.

Even as they apologized for their own lapses, commissioners also reprimanded County Administrator Steve Spratt, who barely avoided Churuti's fate.

During a two-hour discussion, the seven commissioners grappled with the fallout from the county's June 5 purchase of land privately owned by Property Appraiser Jim Smith. A grand jury issued a blistering report on the transaction a week ago.

The unanimous vote to fire Churuti, the county attorney for two decades, came after some commissioners expressed doubts about whether the move was too severe and whether sparing Spratt was just. Other motions - to retain her and to fire both Churuti and Spratt - both failed.

In the end, commissioners seemed to agree on the need to take some action to restore the public's faith in Pinellas government.

"We've got some sour milk. You smell it and I smell it, and we've got to do something," County Commissioner Bob Stewart said before the vote. "Someone has got to pay the price, and that's painful."

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That person was Churuti, whom the commission had suspended with pay on July 31.

Churuti, 52, joined the county attorney's office in 1981, took the top spot six years later and was paid $193,015 a year. Commissioners terminated her without cause, which allows her to collect six months of severance pay.

Senior Assistant County Attorney Jim Bennett will continue to fill in on a temporary basis. Plans for finding another county attorney will be discussed at a workshop that has yet to be scheduled.

Tuesday's meeting was the commission's first opportunity to discuss the grand jury report. Commissioners unanimously voted on June 5 to buy Smith's 1.5 acres of vacant land along Brooker Creek for $225,000, nearly four times what Smith's own office had assessed the land at for tax purposes.

The report said Churuti never represented Smith in a strictly legal sense. But Churuti did have Smith and County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan sign conflict waivers that allowed negotiations to proceed. Spratt and the full commission did not learn of the waivers until weeks after the deal closed.

Churuti also urged Spratt to finish the transaction promptly to resolve Smith's complaint that county work crews had damaged his lot while doing flood control work after the hurricanes of 2004. Though the grand jury found the county had violated Smith's property rights by going onto his lot, it cast doubt on his claim that his land had been "devastated."

The report calls Churuti's actions "perplexing and misleading."

Speaking to commissioners Tuesday, Churuti said she first heard of Smith's complaint in early March. By April 2, Churuti said the county had made a decision to buy the lot as a way to help fight flooding in the Tarpon Woods area.

Once that decision was made, Churuti said no further inquiry into Smith's claim was warranted and she turned the transaction over to Spratt.

Her voice at times choked with emotion, Churuti apologized for not giving the commission more details on how the transaction came about. But she denied wrongdoing and said she expected Spratt to make the necessary disclosures.

"I always acted in what I thought was the best interest of the county," she said. "I didn't do anything unethical, illegal or immoral."

That stand annoyed some commissioners, including Ken Welch, who faulted Churuti for not accepting that aiding Smith in a private claim against the county was a serious error in judgment.

"We need to move in a different direction with our county attorney," Welch said. "What I am hearing is that everybody else misunderstood her actions."

Duncan, the commission chairman whose own involvement in moving the deal forward has come into question, said he was troubled by a letter Churuti's attorney wrote to the St. Petersburg Times. The letter insisted Churuti didn't provide counsel to Smith as a private individual. In previous comments, Duncan said, Churuti indicated otherwise.

"When the story begins to change," Duncan said, "I begin to get worried."

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Though Commissioner Susan Latvala voted to fire Churuti, she had deep reservations and defended Churuti, saying she perhaps could have spoken up more about the deal, but had done nothing wrong. Impressions to the contrary, she said, were planted in the public mind by the newspaper.

"I hate to hang our attorney out to dry for a perception," Latvala said. "It will not heal the issue and it will leave us without the best legal counsel in the state."

With Churuti and Spratt both faulting the other, several commissioners wondered whether the two could work together any longer. Some saw that tension as reason to get rid of both. Others saw a wholesale housecleaning as risky.

"Talk about a ship without a rudder," Stewart said, referring to Pinellas government without Churuti and Spratt. "We need to have top support."

The grand jury report faulted Spratt's administration for relying on a rushed and dubious appraisal process and for not following established procedures to limit the appearance of favoritism.

Tuesday, Spratt apologized for not having slowed the process down so that more care could have been taken, but said Churuti and her office had taken a firm position that closing on the deal swiftly was necessary and delays unacceptable.

Spratt's comments irked County Commissioner Calvin Harris, who at one point moved unsuccessfully to fire both Spratt and Churuti.

"With all due respect to the administrator, I know you can push back" against the county attorney, Harris said. "Why is this one of those things that sailed along?"

Though Spratt kept his job, his position remains precarious. Commissioners made clear that Spratt is being watched closely and would be evaluated by the end of the year.

Spratt said nothing when hearing this news, though he did nod in apparent understanding at times when the commission criticized him. Immediately after the vote to fire Churuti and the discussion regarding Spratt, commissioners recessed briefly, reconvening for a scheduled session of public hearings that lasted long into the night.

Churuti left swiftly, refusing to answer questions and relying on a sheriff's deputy to shoo reporters away and escort her out of the courthouse.

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

What's next

The ouster of Pinellas County Attorney Susan Churuti opens up one of the top jobs at the county courthouse. Commissioners decided that Jim Bennett, senior assistant county attorney, will serve as interim county attorney until a replacement is found.