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Published Jul. 31, 2007

On Thursday, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe plans to ask a grand jury to investigate the mushrooming scandal over a land deal between the elected Pinellas property appraiser and the county government. The grand jury has the right to decline, but the panel surely will understand the extraordinary need for such an inquiry. This scandal has now enveloped so much of the courthouse gang that an investigation by a body with subpoena power is essential to get to the bottom of it.

While there is not yet any evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Pinellas officials, there are so many other indications of cronyism, greed, conflicting stories and poor judgment that it boggles the mind.

Property Appraiser Jim Smith should resign immediately. He has betrayed the public's trust and no longer possesses the moral authority for such an important role as an elected official.

Smith denies he has done anything wrong. He is either blind or in denial. He listed his vacant, flood-prone home site for sale at $400,000 a year ago when his own office had appraised it for tax purposes at only $59,400. He threatened to sue the county, and therefore the public, after alleging that county workers "devastated" his land while trying to unplug debris-clogged Brooker Creek - a claim for which there is precious little evidence. He conveyed that the issue could be resolved by the county paying him $225,000 for the property, in a year when the county government is having to cut programs and lay off workers to meet mandated budget cuts.

What was his motivation? There are disturbing indications that Smith, who was going through a divorce, needed money to buy a new, $500,000 home in Clearwater.

Smith is not the only public official tainted by this sleazy affair. What was County Attorney Susan Churuti thinking when she agreed to represent Smith as an individual on this issue while also representing the county government? She played both sides, and the conflict is stunningly apparent to even the most casual observer.

Churuti apparently did not inform County Administrator Steve Spratt that she was representing Smith as an individual. Why not? She sought out County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan to sign a waiver of conflict of interest so she could represent the county and Smith, but did not fully explain in her cover memo to Duncan the scope of her possible work for Smith.

How the county commissioners deal with Churuti's egregious conflict of interest, not to mention her appalling lack of judgment, will tell us whether they take this scandal seriously.

At its meeting Tuesday, the County Commission tried to act above the fray, lamenting the situation and suggesting an investigation of the actions of the county staff and county attorney by McCabe. Sorry, commissioners, you are in as deep as they are.

In a June 5 meeting, the County Commission voted unanimously, and with no discussion, to approve the purchase of Smith's land at $225,000, supposedly for flood control purposes. Not a single county commissioner thought this agenda item warranted a question about price or appropriateness. Why not? Was this a case of one group of county officials doing a favor for another county official? Could any private individual who threatened to sue the county get his demands addressed with similar dispatch? Hardly. The county's enormous legal staff is proof that the county doesn't typically capitulate when threatened with a lawsuit.

Plumbing the depths of this morass will be difficult and messy. McCabe, his staff and the grand jury have seldom had a more important job to perform on behalf of the public.


In an editorial Tuesday, state Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, was incorrectly described as no longer in office.