Pinellas appraiser's name is tainted, but his pension secure

Backers say Pinellas appraiser has suffered enough. Others are disappointed.

Published November 15, 2007

Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith will leave office at the end of 2008 with his image tarnished by a land scandal.

But his $80,000 yearly pension remains intact.

His retirement will be further cushioned by $225,000 the county paid him in June for land his office valued at roughly a quarter of that amount. The deal led to a grand jury investigation, the firing of county attorney Susan Churuti and the resignation of county Administrator Steve Spratt.

Did Smith get off easy?

Some critics say Smith bears greater blame for the debacle than Spratt or Churuti. He should resign, they say, or return the $225,000. Others think he's suffered plenty: His name is forever linked to a scandal unlike any seen in Pinellas County government for decades.

"As Susan Churuti and Steve Spratt went out the door, Jim Smith should have led the way," said county Commissioner Bob Stewart. "It all traced right back to Jim Smith, and there's nobody can deny that."

For Smith, 67, the question of whether he has unjustly escaped consequences isn't relevant. He has maintained from the beginning that he has done nothing to warrant any punishment.

"I was a pawn in this whole thing," Smith said Wednesday, a day after announcing he would not seek a fifth term.

Smith said he weighed whether to run again for more than a year. When the St. Petersburg Times began writing about the land deal in July, Smith said he vowed to fight, run for office and clear his name.

Then Smith said his family and friends told him they believed in him and he had nothing to prove. So he decided to exit the political stage when his term is up at the end of next year. He said he looks forward to pursuing his passion for sculpting.

Smith views himself as a victim. The St. Petersburg Times, he says, has been on a merciless "witch hunt" aimed at ruining him.

"This has hurt the Times probably as much or more than it has me, at least with the people I come in contact with," he said of the controversy. "What makes this a front-page story?"

One of the elements that marked Smith's behavior throughout the incident was his outspoken refusal to assume blame.

During the controversy, as Churuti and Spratt fell and Pinellas officials scrambled to address a critical grand jury report that slammed the deal and cast doubt on Smith's account of what occurred, Smith remained unrepentant.

He didn't help quell growing public disgust with the scandal by explaining contradictory recollections this way: "I never thought I would have to do much butt-covering." Even after the blistering grand jury report and the ouster of Spratt and Churuti, he offered such comments as, "Where did I do something wrong? I fail to see it."

For some who witnessed the aftermath firsthand, his attitude has been galling.

"Jim believes that he didn't do anything improper," said county Commissioner Ken Welch. "I guess we all have our own thresholds for ethical and moral conduct."

Others see Smith as having suffered terrible repercussions.

He still faces scrutiny from the state Commission on Ethics for his role in the deal, said Pinellas GOP chairman Tony DiMatteo, who insisted in recent weeks that if Smith did run again, the support of the local party wasn't guaranteed.

Then there's the baggage of being associated with scandal.

"The worst punishment is the public's ridicule," county Commissioner Calvin Harris said, "and he has certainly gotten that."

But that ridicule doesn't amount to much for Bernard La Fleur. Like Smith, La Fleur had sought compensation from the county for having damaged his land.

La Fleur, a 66-year-old retiree, spent nearly two years seeking settlement for a creek repair that caused his home to sink. He finally walked away with little more than the house's assessed value.

In contrast, Smith got his check four months after he began to lobby for compensation. At the time, he was seeking money to close on a $500,000 home in Countryside.

"He slipped through the cracks," La Fleur said. "They ought to make him give the money back. He still made out like a bandit."

Researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.