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LAND DEAL FALLOUT PERSISTS

Two county workers are demoted over the Jim Smith case.

The Jim Smith land deal debacle continues to produce fallout in Pinellas County government.

Two county employees are being disciplined for failing to communicate the scope of work done on Smith's property at the end of 2004 to their boss, public works chief Jan Herbst.

The two men, field operations manager John Amiro and engineer John Holt, will be moved out of the public works department, and their pay will be cut.

"That trust with their supervisor just can't be repaired at this point," said acting county administrator Fred Marquis.

It was unclear Friday where they will be moved and how big the pay cuts would be.

The veteran county employees were put on leave with pay Oct. 3 while Marquis began a probe into their actions. Amiro makes $97,818; Holt $124,483.

At issue in the case is flood mitigation work the county did after the 2004 hurricane season on and around Smith's property. Smith has been Pinellas' property appraiser since 1988.

Earlier this year, he tried to sell the Brooker Creek lot, advertising it as a "Beautiful Custom Home Site." After months without an offer, Smith complained that the had county damaged his property during its work three years ago.

Pinellas County commissioners agreed to pay him $225,000 for the land in June to help settle the matter. The amount was nearly quadruple what Smith's office had assigned the lot for tax purposes.

At the end of August, a grand jury issued a report condemning the deal. As part of its inquiry, the grand jury heard testimony about the work that took place on the property in 2004.

Marquis said Amiro and Holt gave Herbst the impression that work crews had not dug a ditch on Smith's land, a position contradicted by a contractor who appeared before the grand jury.

At its core, Marquis said the problem was a failure to communicate fully and clearly. A contractor working for the county had cleared existing low-lying areas where water collected, and widened and deepened those areas into a substantial channel to carry creek water.

"Actually, it improved the property," Marquis said.

He said the men didn't consider what they had done ditch digging, because some of it involved the clearing of already recessed areas. He said he found no evidence the men acted maliciously or tried to deceive Herbst.

Both men have solid track records as county workers, which helped guide Marquis' response.

"I didn't think it warranted termination," he said, "and ruining the careers of two people who up to now have been good."

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

FAST FACTS

Caught in the controversy's aftershock

The Jim Smith land deal has produced multiple casualties. Here's a look at some of the most noteworthy developments:

Sept. 4: County Attorney Susan Churuti is fired by County Commissioners.

Sept. 11: County Administrator Steve Spratt resigns after six years on the job.

Sept 13: Smith tells the St. Petersburg Times he has no plans to resign. "Where did I do something wrong?" he said. "I fail to see it."

Oct. 19: Two county public works employees are demoted and transferred because they didn't fully communicate the extent of the work performed on Smith's property.

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