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GRAND JURY TO LOOK AT SALE

A Pinellas official's $225,000 land deal is under scrutiny.

A Pinellas grand jury agreed Thursday to investigate the County Commission's controversial purchase last month of Property Appraiser Jim Smith's private land for $225,000.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe initiated the investigation after a series of stories in the St. Petersburg Times.

The involvement of the grand jury came as the different players in the drama lined up legal representation.

Next week, the commission will consider whether to hire outside legal counsel to represent its interests before the grand jury.

County Commissioner Ken Welch said the inquiry is necessary.

"We've been damaged terribly by this," Welch said. "I think it's needed, quite frankly, in order to restore public trust."

Smith, 67, Pinellas' elected property appraiser since 1988, retained Clearwater attorney Lou Kwall. He said he welcomed the grand jury's work.

"The truth will be heard," Smith said, "and I think that's going to be good for me."

The county initiated the land buy in March after Smith complained work crews had damaged his vacant East Lake lot during flood control work.

Exactly what the grand jury hears about the transaction won't be disclosed. Nor is it clear how broad a net it will cast.

Grand jury proceedings are not open to the public. Its 21 members, randomly selected, are barred from talking publicly about their activities. And those who testify before them can't disclose information either.

County officials now acknowledge the purchase of Smith's 1.5-acre parcel was handled irregularly. The County Commission voted June 5 to buy the land, at nearly four times what Smith's own office had valued the property at for tax purposes.

Staff writer Curtis Krueger and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

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