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Smith sees no reason to quit

Appraiser says he will serve his term despite a land-sale scandal.

By RICHARD DANIELSON and ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writers
Published September 14, 2007


Embattled Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith says he isn't going anywhere - at least not for now.

While a grand jury has criticized him and at least one county commissioner has called for the governor to remove him from office, Smith was unrepentant Thursday night.

"Where did I do something wrong?" he said. "I fail to see it."

During a 96-minute telephone interview, Smith made his first substantial public remarks since Aug. 28, when a state grand jury released its 22-page report on the county's controversial purchase of vacant land Smith owned.

"I went through the grand jury process, and nothing was found there," said Smith, who was not indicted but was criticized in the grand jury's report.

In a wide-ranging interview, Smith said:

-He intends to serve out his term and will decide whether to run for re-election this fall.

-He never tried to get Pinellas officials to buy his land, nor did he lobby county officials to do so. The idea for the purchase, he said, came from the county, first from now-fired County Attorney Susan Churuti in casual conversation and later from an assistant county administrator.

-He sees himself as the victim of a "witch hunt" by the St. Petersburg Times and feels that Churuti was "railroaded" out of her job.

-He called Commissioner Bob Stewart's suggestion that he needs to be held to account for his role in the controversy "supercilious."

-He has not had a chance to present his side of the story - even to the grand jury.

Smith made his comments after the Times called to tell him that Gov. Charlie Crist said he is not inclined to remove Smith from office.

Instead, the governor said the state Ethics Commission needs to consider the complaints that have been filed in the controversy, which arose after the county paid Smith $225,000 for a piece of vacant land, nearly four times the value assessed by his own office.

In the meantime, the governor said, "I know it doesn't look great, I'm aware of that. But I'm also aware of justice and that we have a process for a reason, and I believe in respecting that process before lurching forward."

Told of Crist's remarks, Smith said he "certainly" plans to serve out his term of office.

Asked whether he would seek re-election in 2008, Smith said he wouldn't decide until the tax roll is certified this fall.

"I have a lot of factors to consider," he said.

Among other things, he wants to see the completion of two high-tech upgrades to his office.

Smith said he spends many mornings and evenings going over documents related to the land sale and maintains he has not been heard yet.

Grand jurors, he said, "heard the answers I had to the questions that I was asked" by a prosecutor. But the jurors were not sequestered, and he assumes they read news stories that raised questions about the transactions.

On issues where the grand jury criticized him, Smith said he did nothing wrong.

For example, the grand jury noted that two years before Smith bought the parcel in 1994, his office classified it entirely as wetlands. The year he bought it, his office estimated that 32 percent of the lot was uplands and put its taxable value at $22,500. A year later, after Smith met with the staff member assigned to place a value on his property, the amount of uplands was trimmed to 16 percent and the taxable value placed at $14,500.

Smith said that meeting took place so he could share a site plan that showed what was on the property with his staff. He did not pressure anyone to lower the land's value.

"I have never done that," he said.

Smith said he originally wanted the county to repair damage done to the land when crews entered without authorization after the 2004 hurricanes.

In a March 13 letter, Smith's attorney asked the county to purchase the property. Smith reiterated Thursday that he did not authorized his lawyer to write that letter.

He said Churuti, the county attorney, broached the idea of the county buying the land on March 19, the same day he signed a waiver that appeared to authorize her to represent both him and the county in an investigation into his damage claim. In response, Smith said he mentioned a figure of "a couple of hundred thousand dollars."

Two days later - when he sent Churuti a real estate flier for the land with the note "Know Any Buyers?? Ha" - his intention was to share with her a photo that showed the damage to the land. He was not trying to get the county to buy the land, he said.

So why the note?

"I have no clue why I did that," he said. "I really don't. I have a sense of humor. I joke all the time."

In the ensuing investigation and fallout, Smith said he thinks "Susan got railroaded." County Administrator Steve Spratt, who this week submitted his resignation, was already on thin ice with three commissioners even before the land sale controversy erupted, Smith thought.

And as for Commissioner Stewart's suggestion that Smith himself be held to account, Smith said, "I think he's a bit supercilious, isn't he?"

Stewart could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.