1. Archive


The state Commission on Ethics on Wednesday cleared Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith of misconduct in a land deal scandal last year that sparked a grand jury probe and toppled senior county officials.

The ethics commission also cleared former County Attorney Susan Churuti, who lost her job over the controversy, and County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan, who was board chairman in 2007.

Smith, who decided a year ago he would not seek a fifth term in November, said the commission made the only decision possible.

"I didn't expect anything different," said Smith, 68. "Had I done something wrong, I would have been the first to admit it."

The commission hears complaints from citizens and enforces the state's civil ethics code. St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse was one of several residents who made a complaint against Smith. He called the commission findings ridiculous.

The most damning charge the commission heard against Smith was that he abused his position to "fast track" the sale of his property and get a favorable deal, a violation called "misuse of public position."

"There was no evidence uncovered in the preliminary investigation suggesting that Respondent used his position to pressure officials, interfere with their judgment or obtain approval of the sale," an attorney for the commission wrote.

Smith, Churuti and Duncan all faced the misuse of public position charge, which has a high bar that rests on state of mind. Actions must be taken with "wrongful intent," meaning public officials are guilty only if they meant to be bad.

In June 2007, the County Commission voted unanimously to buy a tract of land from Smith for $225,000, nearly four times the assessed value.

Later, a grand jury issued a report that concluded no criminal activity had taken place, but blasted top officials for not following standard real estate procedures and creating a "clear public perception" that Smith got favorable treatment.

Will Van Sant can be reached at or (727) 445-4166.