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Pinellas’ attorney worked both sides on land deal

Pinellas’ attorney worked both sides on land deal
By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published July 24, 2007

Property Appraiser Jim Smith claimed he was a victimized private landowner when he approached Pinellas County about purchasing his supposedly "devastated" lot on Brooker Creek.

 But within days of his attorney threatening a lawsuit alleging county crews had damaged the land doing flood control work, Smith secured a legal advocate no private citizen could hire: Pinellas County Attorney Susan Churuti.

 In an unusual move, Churuti represented both the county and Smith as a private citizen in negotiations that resulted last month in the county buying the land for $225,000, nearly quadruple the value Smith’s office assigned the property for tax purposes.  

 The revelation that the county’s top attorney represented both the buyer and seller comes nearly three weeks after the St. Petersburg  Times first reported on the land deal.

 ‘The attorney’s role’

 Churuti apparently represented Smith in near secrecy. County Administrator Steve Spratt said Churuti never told him of the talks with Smith that began in mid March, despite the fact that the two county leaders meet weekly.

 But County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan was aware of Churuti’s work. He, along with Smith, signed conflict-of-interest waivers dated March 19 that allowed Churuti to represent both sides.

 On July 2, Duncan told the  Times he first learned of the county’s interest in Smith’s property at a meeting with Spratt shortly before the commission unanimously approved the deal June 5.

 Duncan explained Monday that he believed he was being asked when he learned that the sale would be coming before the commission for a vote – not when he first learned of the county’s interest in Smith’s property.

 Churuti also played another prominent role in the negotiations. Her office provided the key rationale Spratt has cited for buying the land: that the county lacked the legal right to enter Smith’s property to do flood control work after the 2004 hurricanes. That opinion is contrary to how county flood crews have operated for years.

 Churuti became the broker between Smith and the county less than a week after March 15, when the letter from Smith’s attorney arrived at her office, and after Smith telephoned both her and Duncan. Churuti said Smith spoke of the need to resolve the dispute and her ability to represent him in settlement talks.  

 Duncan said a fuming Smith called his office about 2 p.m. March 16, railing about "the lot that was destroyed."

 ‘Similar interests?’

 None of these details were included in a July 13 report on the deal that Spratt provided to the County Commission. Spratt said he did not learn of Smith’s contact with Churuti and Duncan until last week, when Churuti released the conflict-of-interest waivers in response to a  Times public records request.

 Churuti and Duncan said it may be possible that Spratt was present when Duncan signed his waiver, but neither is certain. Spratt said he was not there and his calendar indicates no such meeting.

 Spratt would not comment on whether he felt blindsided.

 "My best answer is that I would be bothered by that if the county attorney could not represent the public objectively in the matter," Spratt said. "It goes to the individual’s ethical judgment."

 Later in the day, Spratt said it would have probably been best if Churuti had not represented Smith, but that he had no reason to think she had done anything wrong.

 Churuti has said in prior interviews that she saw no problem with representing both sides, because their interests were the same, with the county wanting to buy the property because of its flood mitigation value and Smith wanting to sell.

 Pressed Monday on whether it was appropriate for her to represent Smith in a claim he was bringing against the county as a private citizen, she pulled back.

 "My motivation was to try to save the county money and resolve the issue," she said. "In retrospect, do I wish I hadn’t done it? That’s a different question."

 Duncan said he had assumed Spratt would be told of the waiver. Churuti acknowledged she may have failed to notify Spratt of the talks.

 "Maybe I didn’t," she said. "Maybe I made a mistake."

 Staff writers Joe Childs, Theresa Blackwell and Jonathan Abel contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at [email protected] (727) 445-4166.