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SMITH GOT SPEEDY SERVICE

The county's purchase of his land didn't follow the "normal process," an official says.

Hours after Property Appraiser Jim Smith called Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan to sound off about his "devastated" land, Duncan took a drive past the vacant parcel on his way home last March.

Duncan saw no evidence of the destruction that Smith alleged county work crews had committed while doing flood control work. Nonetheless, the chairman would make key decisions that allowed the county's purchase of Smith's land to move forward.

Duncan is not the only public official whose swift actions led to the county buying Smith's parcel on Brooker Creek for $225,000.

Taxpayers underwrote the legal advice Smith received for free from the county attorney. County staff pushed negotiations forward, time and again, despite doubts about Smith's claims or the property's value. And in a sphere where residents' claims can take years to resolve, the County Commission approved buying Smith's property less than three months after he personally lobbied Duncan, the county administrator and the county attorney.

Duncan acknowledges that Smith received unusually prompt and attentive treatment.

"There appears to be some undue pressure to expedite, to - how can I say - move things to the head of the queue," Duncan said. "I can't say to you this was the normal process that we use to buy land."

But were any laws - criminal, ethical or civil - broken?

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe today will ask a grand jury whether it wants to investigate. If the grand jury takes action, criminal activity is within the scope of its powers.

But grand juries in Florida can also investigate ethical and legal violations that may not meet the standard of criminality. The state Supreme Court gives them the authority to investigate public offices to determine whether "good morals" are adhered to and whether officials have been "incompetent or lax in the performance of their duties." This power means that potentially any official involved in the land sale and its aftermath could be subject to the grand jury's purview.

Public officials may also face scrutiny in other ways, since McCabe has pledged his own office will look into whether any crime was committed.

It's against the law for a public official to use the influence of his office for personal gain. The crime, a second-degree felony, could carry 15 years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

Florida also has a code of ethics governing public officials and employees that bars officials from using their positions to secure benefits or special privileges. It is enforced by the Florida Commission on Ethics, which can impose penalties ranging from civil fines and suspension to removal from office.

But the commission can't launch an investigation until it receives a formal complaint from a citizen.

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

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