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APPRAISER'S LAND DEAL GOT EARLY HELP FROM BIGWIGS

Pinellas County leaders have repeatedly tried to paint last month's purchase of Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land as deliberate and in the public interest, omitting key details to fit their story line.

Four days before a grand jury convenes to consider the deal, new documents obtained Monday by the St. Petersburg Times show once again that the full story has yet to emerge.

The documents suggest greater and earlier involvement by the highest echelons of county government than previously disclosed. County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan made multiple inquiries to midlevel staffers handling the issue. And Smith joked about the deal in a handwritten note to County Attorney Susan Churuti.

On or before March 21, Smith's secretary sent a real estate flier Smith had used unsuccessfully for months to market his East Lake lot as a $400,000 "Beautiful Custom Home Site." Smith added: "Know Any Buyers?? Ha."

The documents also indicate top-level officials were considering buying the land within a week of Smith's private lawyer suggesting the purchase to settle Smith's claim that county work crews had "devastated" his land.

Presented with details that counter their earlier statements, county leaders Monday offered no explanation or were unable to recall certain events.

Today, the County Commission will consider hiring outside legal representation for the grand jury inquiry into the deal, which paid Smith $225,000 for property his office appraised at a quarter of that value.

Much of the effort to buy the Smith property can be traced to March 21, when Churuti, County Administrator Steve Spratt and Duncan held their regular weekly meeting.

Churuti and Spratt met at 11 a.m.; Duncan joined them at 1 p.m. The meeting came just two days after Churuti had drafted documents signed by Smith and Duncan that made her legal counsel for both Smith's private claim and the County Commission.

Churuti's notes from one of those March 21 meetings, obtained Monday, includes the following: "Jim Smith update. $200,000."

Where that figures comes from, which weeks later would be the first offer Pinellas made to Smith, is unclear. Churuti has declined to talk to the Times since State Attorney Bernie McCabe announced the grand jury would investigate.

Both Spratt and Duncan have said it was not until at least nine days later, after the county had found that owning Smith's lot would be beneficial to flood mitigation in the Tarpon Woods area, that a purchase was seriously pursued.

Monday, neither man could remember Churuti raising the $200,000 figure on March 21.

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