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PINELLAS SUSPENDS ATTORNEY

She will be on leave during a grand jury investigation.

Pinellas County commissioners suspended County Attorney Susan Churuti on Tuesday, saying they had lost confidence in her because of her role in a land deal now the focus of a grand jury investigation.

The commission voted unanimously to put Churuti, 52, on administrative leave for the duration of the grand jury's work. The jury convenes Thursday. Its investigation is expected to take several days to a few weeks.

During her suspension, Churuti, the county attorney for 20 years, will be paid her salary of $193,015 a year.

Churuti has been under fire since the St. Petersburg Times revealed that before the county's purchase of Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land for $225,000 last month, she had agreed to represent Smith after he alleged the county damaged his lot while doing flood control work.

Churuti served as Smith's lawyer while the controversial purchase was being negotiated, even as she represented the County Commission in the deal. She did not reveal her dual role to the full commission until July 19, roughly three weeks after the sale closed.

"I cannot tell you how disturbed I am to be facing a grand jury" because the county attorney failed to disclose information, County Commissioner Ken Welch said before the vote. "My faith in my county attorney ... is irretrievably shaken."

With the grand jury looming, Churuti has told the Times she would not answer questions. She was not at Tuesday's meeting, nor did she return a call to her home after work hours.

During her suspension, senior Assistant County Attorney Jim Bennett will serve as county attorney.

County Commissioner Karen Seel also wanted to suspend County Administrator Steve Spratt, who pushed his staff to negotiate and complete the deal quickly. Spratt has said Churuti's office urged him to move fast.

"I feel that full disclosure was not made by either party," Seel said, referring to Churuti and Spratt. "I don't think I can retrieve that faith."

But no other commissioners would go that far. Welch said Spratt had answered his questions about the deal shortly before the commission approved the purchase June 5.

And County Commissioner Calvin Harris said getting rid of the administrator while next year's budget is being developed was unwise.

Spratt, Churuti, Smith, the County Commission and at least 15 Pinellas employees are expected to appear before the grand jury.

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

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