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County attorney’s job at risk over deal

County attorney’s job at risk over deal
Published July 25, 2007

Pinellas County Attorney Susan Churuti’s job of 20 years appeared in jeopardy Tuesday as the controversy intensified over the county’s purchase of land owned by Property Appraiser Jim Smith.

 In a separate development, State Attorney Bernie McCabe said he would ask a grand jury Thursday whether it wished to investigate the purchase of Smith’s vacant lot on Brooker Creek. McCabe said he had no evidence of a specific law being broken, but that "a broad examination of every aspect" of the deal was under way.

 Churuti, 52, told the St. Petersburg  Times late Tuesday that she was considering resigning. And two of her bosses questioned if she could repair the damage done to her credibility.

 The Times reported Tuesday that Churuti had agreed to represent both Pinellas and Smith in talks that led the county to buy Smith’s property last month for $225,000. The appraiser owned the parcel as a private citizen and not in his capacity as an elected official. Smith said county work crews had damaged his property during flood control work.

 The revelation of Churuti’s dual role was the latest example of county leaders failing to disclose key details of the deal to the public.

 Churuti said her motivation was to resolve the matter quickly to avoid costly litigation.

 "I wish I hadn’t taken the hard way," Churuti said with a touch of anger. "I wish I had not tried to save the county money."  

 County Commissioner Ken Welch said Tuesday that there will have to be consequences.

 "The only question in my mind is the severity of the consequences," he said.

 Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan, whose own role in the county’s negotiations has come under scrutiny, went further, confirming that he would weigh whether to seek Churuti’s firing. "That’s one option," Duncan said. "And I’m going to seriously consider that."  

 Churuti said she knew it was "a slippery slope" when she sat down with Smith and Duncan and had both men sign conflict of interest waivers in March. Duncan said he thought the waiver would just allow Churuti to talk with Smith and his private attorney but did not know a purchase was in the works.  

 Churuti said Smith and the county shared a goal: The appraiser wanted to sell his land and the county wanted to buy the property for flood control work. In such cases, she said, the Florida Bar does not prohibit dual representation.

 But Churuti agreed to her unique role only after an angry Smith had contacted several senior county officials, including Duncan, and Smith’s private attorney wrote the county encouraging it to buy the land to settle Smith’s damage claim. And her representation of Smith as a private citizen may conflict with a state law prohibiting local government attorneys from representing adversaries of the governments that employ them.

 Mark Herron, a Tallahassee lawyer who deals with ethics law would not comment specifically on Churuti’s actions but said some situations are so fraught with conflict of interest that a waiver is not enough.

 "Look at their job descriptions," Herron said. "Is it the duty of this employee of the county or of this local government attorney to represent private citizens? I think it is not."

 County Administrator Steve Spratt, who said he learned just last week of Churuti’s activities, said the conflict waivers were signed at a time when he was still investigating whether the county could repair the property, not buy it. "I told her that I was troubled," Spratt said Tuesday, "that I have major problems with that."

 Yet Spratt’s actions are also under scrutiny. A report Spratt filed to the County Commission July 13 suggests that the letter written by Smith’s attorney in March asking the county to buy the property sparked the county’s interest in the land. In fact, an irate Smith had paid a visit to Spratt five days earlier.

 Questions also surround Smith’s actions.

 The county said it last worked on Smith’s property in early 2005, when crews operated throughout the Tarpon Woods area to remove debris from the 2004 hurricanes.

 Smith, 67, the elected appraiser for 19 years, complained in September 2005 about damage from the work but never followed up on his claim until March of this year.

 He told county leaders his land had been "devastated." But for the previous nine months the property was for sale for $400,000, pitched as a "Beautiful Custom Home Site." Smith has acknowledged he was hoping to use the check from the county toward the purchase of a $497,000 private home in Countryside.

 At a County Commission meeting Tuesday, a resolution endorsing McCabe’s inquiry passed unanimously. That puts the commission in the bizarre situation of backing an inquiry into a land purchase it approved unanimously — without any public discussion — on June 5. The commission also agreed to consider hiring an outside attorney to represent members in McCabe’s inquiry.

 County Commissioner Bob Stewart said the board supported the sale because it did not know then what it knows now. Churuti has acknowledged not disclosing her role to the commissioners.

 "What’s happened since June 5th," Stewart said, "has been revelations about facts and relationships we were not aware of. We didn’t have the background that we are entitled to and should expect."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at  [email protected] or (727) 445-4166.

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