Fired Pinellas County attorney to return as charter review lawyer

Former Pinellas County Attorney Susan Churuti is returning to county politics, two years after the County Commission fired her over the Jim Smith land sale scandal.

The Charter Review Commission — an independent panel that can recommend changes to local government — voted 9-4 Tuesday to hire her in a deal with her law firm, Bryant Miller Olive in Tampa. The firm will be paid $225 an hour to advise the commission, a job that ends in July.

Churuti lost her county job of two decades in 2007 after a grand jury found her handling of the Smith land sale "perplexing and misleading." The county had agreed pay Smith, then the property appraiser, almost four times what his office had valued a 1.5-acre plot of land he owned near Brooker Creek.

Churuti dealt with the county and Smith at the same time on the sale, but the Florida Bar and the state Ethics Commission later cleared her of any violations. Churuti said Wednesday she had no reluctance to step back into Pinellas government work, and charter officials singled her experience and her firm's national reach as the edge over three other firms.

"Susan is an excellent attorney," said County Commissioner Ken Welch, a charter review commission member, adding that he believes in second chances.

Churuti will be the primary lawyer for the panel, but a dozen lawyers from the firm could help. The review board will no longer be represented by the County Attorney's Office — a change this year to avoid potential conflicts in work that often has roiled cities against the county on annexation and other issues. But Churuti's firm represents half of the 24 cities in Pinellas. Churuti, co-head of the firm's government practice, said the work presents no conflicts. But not everyone agreed.

"I asked her, "Do you see this as being a potential conflict?" said state Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, a panel member who voted against her firm. "She tried to say no, but how do you say no? You're going to give up 12 clients to keep one?"

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Fired Pinellas County attorney to return as charter review lawyer 01/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 10:42pm]

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