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Pinellas land deal scandal spawns new rules

Determined to avoid another embarrassment like the Jim Smith land deal, the Pinellas County legal department has created new rules to govern its attorneys.

Now when the department represents multiple clients within Pinellas government — such as the county itself and one of its five constitutional officers — everyone will be given a written explanation of the dual representation.

The county administrator will be told and the entire County Commission notified — in writing.

Also, the new rules strictly forbid county attorneys from representing Pinellas officials making private legal claims unrelated to their jobs.

The rules, unanimously endorsed Tuesday by the County Commission, are rooted in recommendations made in an August grand jury report on the county's June purchase of land privately owned by Property Appraiser Jim Smith.

"It adds the necessary step in transparency that was missing," commission Chairman Bob Stewart said. "Hopefully, we can avoid going through anything like that again."

Shortly after Smith began to complain to officials about damage that work crews had done to his land, then-County Attorney Susan Churuti agreed to help him settle his claim.

In March 2007, Churuti had Smith and then-Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan sign conflict-of-interest waivers that cleared the way for her to work with both Smith and the county in discussions about Smith's claim, then lobbied to have the commission buy Smith's land.

Then-County Administrator Steve Spratt and the remaining members of the commission were unaware the conflict waivers had been signed until well after the deal closed.

County officials paid Smith $225,000, nearly quadruple the value his office had assigned the property for tax purposes. A state grand jury investigated the transaction, but indicted no one.

Though the grand jury spread blame around, its report dealt harshly with Churuti, saying the use of the waivers and lack of disclosure was "perplexing and misleading."

"It implies Churuti could and would represent Smith in his claim against the county while at the same time advising the county of how to resolve the claim," the grand jury's report said.

In response, commissioners fired Churuti in September. The Florida Bar later concluded she committed no misconduct.

Though some of the new rules reflect existing law and standards of professional conduct, new County Attorney Jim Bennett said they should prove useful.

Had they been in place at the time of the Smith deal, Bennett said, the administrator and commission would have been better informed and there would have been no question as to whether Churuti was giving Smith private representation.

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

Pinellas land deal scandal spawns new rules 03/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 4:56pm]
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