There is no need for Pinellas County commissioners to wait for a grand jury investigation to do the right thing. They should fire County Attorney Susan Churuti for her deceitful, unethical conduct in the scandal involving the county's purchase of Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land. If they refuse to start cleaning up this mess, their hands will be as dirty as hers.
This passive commission is hardly a profile in courage or accountability. On Tuesday, commissioners asked Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe to investigate the county's $225,000 purchase of Smith's vacant, flood-prone land. Of course, McCabe already was investigating. Then they talked about hiring an outside attorney to represent themselves. That sounds more like damage control on the taxpayers' tab than decisive leadership.
This commission is embarrassingly complacent and deferential. It was shaken down by a county constitutional officer who needed money to buy a house, and without a single question it blundered into voting for the deal. Its own county attorney led it astray and left the county administration muddied and suspect. Yet where there should be outrage, there are mumbled excuses. Where there should be decisive action, there is stalling. The county attorney works for the commission, yet the commissioners defer to Churuti, who has been around the county courthouse longer than all of them and has her own deep political connections.
Churuti's most important job as county attorney is to steer the county government around legal quagmires. Instead, she dived in head first on the Smith land sale and dragged the commissioners down with her.
After Smith claimed that county workers damaged his 1.5 acres doing flood-control work, a private attorney working for Smith suggested the county could make things right by buying the parcel. Churuti then decided to represent both Smith as a private individual and the county government. Wrong.
Churuti didn't tell County Administrator Steve Spratt she was representing Smith in his private claim against the county. Wrong.
Smith obtained Churuti's assistance free of charge, with the taxpayers left holding the bill. Wrong.
Churuti got County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan to sign a conflict-of-interest waiver so she could represent both sides, but didn't tell Duncan in a memo she wrote that the dispute over damage to Smith's land also involved a possible county purchase of the land. Wrong.
Churuti did not reveal her dual representation to the public, either before or during the June 5 public meeting at which commissioners voted to buy Smith's land. Wrong again.
The grand jury and the Florida Bar surely will want to examine whether Churuti violated legal and ethical standards. But she already has violated the trust of the commission, acted behind the back of the county administrator, and lost all credibility with taxpayers who pay her salary. County commissioners can't do anything about Smith, who ought to resign but is still in denial about his unethical behavior. But the county attorney works for the commissioners. If Churuti won't go willingly, they need to push her out the door.