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PINELLAS ATTORNEY'S JOB AT RISK

Pinellas County Attorney Susan Churuti told the St. Petersburg Times Tuesday that she is considering resigning her job of 20 years as a scandal intensifies over her role in the county's purchase of land owned by Property Appraiser Jim Smith.

In separate interviews Tuesday, County Commissioner Ken Welch and commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan both questioned whether Churuti, 52, could repair the damage done to her credibility.

"I don't know what she could say at this point," Welch said. "There will have to be consequences to this. The only question in my mind is the severity of the consequences."

Duncan 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."

The developments came hours after Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe said he would begin an inquiry into the county's June 29 purchase of Smith's vacant lot on Brooker Creek for $225,000.

McCabe said he will ask a grand jury Thursday if it wants to consider the matter.

The Times reported Tuesday that Churuti had agreed to represent both Pinellas and Smith in talks that led the county to buy the land. The appraiser owned the parcel as a private citizen and not in his capacity as an elected official. Smith claimed county work crews had damaged his property during flood control work.

The revelation was the latest example of county leaders failing to disclose key details to the public.

Churuti said Tuesday evening that she knew it was "a slippery slope" when she sat down with Smith and Duncan and had them sign conflict-of-interest waivers in March.

She said Smith and the county shared a goal, with the appraiser wanting to sell his land and Pinellas wanting 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 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.

Still unclear is whether Churuti's representation of Smith and his private interests may conflict with a state law, which appears to bar local government attorneys from representing adversaries of the government they work for.

Tallahassee lawyer Mark Herron, who practices frequently before the Florida Ethics Commission, would not comment on Churuti's actions, but he 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 this local government attorney to represent private citizens? I think it is not."

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