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State panel clears Jim Smith of ethics lapse in land deal

The state Commission on Ethics on Wednesday cleared Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith of misconduct in a land deal scandal last year that sparked a grand jury probe and toppled senior county officials.

The ethics commission also cleared former County Attorney Susan Churuti, who lost her job over the controversy, and County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan, who was board chairman in 2007.

Smith, who decided a year ago he would not seek a fifth term in November, said the commission made the only decision possible.

"I didn't expect anything different," said Smith, 68. "Had I done something wrong I would have been the first to admit it."

The commission hears complaints from citizens and enforces the state's civil ethics code. St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse was one of several residents who made a complaint against Smith. He called the commission findings ridiculous.

"If you would ask any citizen, that was clearly using your position to enrich yourself," Nurse said of Smith's actions. "I don't know what rules the ethics commission is using, but that's not common sense."

The most damning charge the commission heard against Smith was that he abused his position to "fast track" the sale of his property and get a favorable deal. The technical term for such a violation is "misuse of public position."

"There was no evidence uncovered in the preliminary investigation suggesting that Respondent used his position to pressure officials, interfere with their judgment or obtain approval of the sale," an attorney for the commission wrote.

Smith, Churuti and Duncan all faced the misuse of public position charge, which has a high bar that rests on state of mind. Actions must be taken with "wrongful intent," meaning public officials are guilty only if they meant to be bad.

In June 2007, the County Commission voted unanimously to buy a small tract of land in North Pinellas from Smith for $225,000, nearly four times the assessed value of the property. The purchase settled Smith's claim that county work crews had damaged the land doing flood control work.

A grand jury issued a report three months later that concluded no criminal activity had taken place, but blasted top officials for not following standard real estate procedures and creating a "clear public perception" that Smith got favorable treatment.

The grand jury also found no "credible evidence" that work crews were responsible for the "devastation" Smith said was done to his land.

Duncan, who is not running for a second term, said he believed the ethics commission findings closed the chapter on the Smith affair.

"I am delighted by the results," Duncan said, "and look forward to continuing to be a part of the Pinellas community."

Churuti, whom the County Commission fired after the grand jury report was released, hung up the phone on a St. Petersburg Times reporter seeking comment.

Smith was only a bit more receptive to answering questions, saying the newspaper had disgraced itself by launching a witch hunt against him.

"It just makes me ill," Smith told a reporter. "I have very little respect for the St. Pete Times."

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

State panel clears Jim Smith of ethics lapse in land deal 10/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2008 4:55pm]
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