The public spotlight and the grand jury investigation into the scandal involving the public purchase of Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith's private property has some officials running for cover. In letters to the editor published below, County Attorney Susan Churuti's lawyer and Commissioner Ken Welch offer creative defenses that neither the public nor the grand jury should accept.
Churuti's explanation of her central role in the county's $225,000 purchase of Smith's vacant land is particularly brazen in its disregard for the obvious. The county attorney represented both the county and Smith in the public purchase of Smith's private property, an unacceptable conflict of interest. Now Churuti's lawyer, Debora Moss, contends that Churuti was merely representing the property appraiser in his official capacity. That defense is spectacularly at odds with the facts and insults the public's intelligence.
This was Smith's flood-prone property he owned as an individual. He was an angry private landowner who wanted the public to pay for what he considered irreparable damage to the property by the county. He was acting in his private interest, not the public's, when he insisted the county buy his land. Just because the conflict-of-interest letter Churuti had commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan sign said she was representing Smith in his official capacity doesn't make it so.
But the county attorney has a flair for glossing over inconvenient details. The same letter fails to mention the issue was the purchase of Smith's land, not merely "the county's removal of trees ...'' An e-mail Churuti sent to county commissioners Saturday portrays herself as an innocent bystander and attempts to set up County Administrator Steve Spratt - who didn't know she was representing Smith as well as the county - as the fall guy.
Churuti is a central character, and she can't have it both ways. She wants taxpayers to believe she was representing Smith as a public official - and that Smith was treated like any other property owner who makes a claim against the county. Tell that to Pinellas property owners who hire their own lawyers, fight with the county over the damage and wait months for a resolution. The public won't buy such a ridiculous defense, and neither should county commissioners nor the grand jury.
Welch's explanation of his actions also falls short. He complains that editorials and news articles noting that commissioners approved the Smith land purchase without questioning it are misleading. While no questions were asked in public, Welch said he privately asked Spratt several questions. He lists only the questions, but here are the answers he should have received:
Is there a legitimate public purpose for acquiring the land? Spratt says there was for access to a creek for flood control work, but it doesn't appear less expensive options such as repairs or an easement were explored.
Are we paying a fair market price for the land, based on an outside appraisal? No. While the land was appraised at $250,000, that appraisal did not consider what portion of the land was flood-prone and unbuildable. Smith's own office assessed the land's value at just over $59,000.
Are we liable for the alleged damages to the property? Yes, but the extent and timing of the damage are far from clear.
Is this an arm's-length transaction? Clearly not.
Welch has eliminated ignorance as a defense for this indefensible insider land deal. He is left with either claiming the answers Spratt gave him were misleading, or with supporting the spending of public money to silence another public official's griping.
If it had been in the public's best interest to buy Smith's land, prudent county commissioners would have asked Spratt and Churuti these questions during the public meeting just before they voted. Instead, there was only a conspiracy of public silence on a sweet deal for the property appraiser that was greased by the county attorney.