Former SC State board chair Pinson guilty on racketeering charges

jmonk@thestate.comJuly 3, 2014 

  • Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin released this statement Thursday night

    “We have the Pinson family in our thoughts and prayers. As you are aware, I have withheld all comment while this difficult matter was before the court.

    “As has been reported accurately over the past few weeks, I have not been charged with any criminal offenses. Now that a verdict has been rendered, it needs to be made clear that I have done nothing illegal.

    “My ownership interest in the Village at Rivers Edge terminated in August of 2009 and, after that date, I no longer maintained any role in the management of the project. Furthermore, after my election as Mayor in April of 2010, I conflicted myself out of all decisions directly or indirectly related to the project. This position is well documented at the City of Columbia.

    “There were two matters reported by the media that need to be addressed. First, it has been reported that the South Carolina State Ethics Commission has inquired about a one day business trip to Orlando that was not related in any way to City of Columbia business. We have met with the Ethics Commission and are confident that after a thorough review of all of the facts, they will determine that it was a personal business trip and as such, not a matter to be reported.

    “Second, I regret being present for certain aspects of the previously referenced trip. I should have used better judgment. However to be clear, I did not at any time engage in any illegal activity while in Orlando.

    “As a family we are stronger than ever and we remain in prayer for our friends, and the City we love. We wish all a safe and peaceful holiday weekend.”

    -- Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin

— Jonathan Pinson, once chairman of the board of S.C. State University and a high-flying businessman known for multi-million-dollar development projects, was given a new label Thursday by a federal jury: racketeer.

The jury found the Greenville businessman guilty on 29 of 45 felony counts and acquitted him on 16. He did not testify during the trial, which began June 16. The government had spent three years in investigating and bringing the case – one of its most complex in recent years – to trial in Columbia. Its investigators included a low-profile joint FBI-SLED public corruption team task force that targets officials in South Carolina.

The biggest guilty verdict came on count No. 1, which charged Pinson, 44, with racketeering, or being part of an ongoing criminal enterprise engaged in crimes like money laundering, theft of federal funds, wire fraud, bribery and extortion.

Prosecutors had labeled Pinson the “mastermind” racketeer of an operation that involved a half-dozen others and four separate money-making schemes.

Pinson’s attorney, Jim Griffin of Columbia, said he intends to file a motion to set aside the jury’s verdict within 14 days and appeal if the verdict stands.

“I’m not faulting the jury – they worked really hard – but the fact of the matter is they were given an impossible task,” Griffin said. “The Pinson family is devastated by the verdict, and we will continue to fight.”

Pinson will be allowed to be free until his sentencing, which should take place, if the verdict’s not set aside, in 60-90 days.

The jury also delivered a clear message about what it thought about Pinson using his board chairman’s post at S.C. State to get kickbacks. It found him guilty of criminal activity in two schemes involving South Carolina’s oldest and largest predominantly African-American public university, located in Orangeburg.

One scheme involved a plot by Pinson and others to get kickbacks by having the university hire a close Pinson friend’s company to choose the music for the 2011 homecoming concert. The other involved a secret plot by Pinson to get a kickback of a Porsche Cayenne SUV for his behind-the-scenes aid to a Florida developer who was trying to sell a 121-acre tract to the university. Those cars are worth some $90,000.

In all, the trial involved four complicated schemes orchestrated by Pinson and others. Each scheme had its own specific set of crimes and evidence the jury had to sift through.

On Monday, it took U.S. Judge David Norton more than an hour to read a 71-page set of deliberation instructions involving 41 separate topics to the jury. Once deliberating, the jury waded through some 200 exhibits, including canceled checks, emails, bank statements, maps and photographs.

During the trial, the jury heard testimony from 20 government witnesses, including four Pinson co-conspirators who already had pleaded guilty and who testified against Pinson. And it listened to snippets of 118 Pinson cellphone conversations secretly recorded by the FBI during the summer and fall of 2011. During deliberations, the jury asked to have more than a dozen wiretaps replayed.

The trial was notable for:

• Casting a bright light on the potential for South Carolina politicians who hold public office to use those offices to get access to a cozy, non-publicized world where they can hustle easy favors and money from people seeking special treatment or to do business with a public agency.

• Offering by witness testimony an unexpected glimpse into previously unknown activities by Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, In 2010, Benjamin accepted a free ride in a private jet from a developer who hoped to do business with the city of Columbia. Developer Richard Zahn flew Benjamin, Pinson and two S.C. State officials to Orlando, where Zahn wined and dined them and took them to a strip club. Then Zahn hired two women from the strip club to go back to their hotel, where they went to a room with Zahn, Pinson and Benjamin.

Benjamin has refused comment on that trip, which the S.C. Ethics Commission said he should have reported. Zahn estimated that trip to cost some $8,000, which Benjamin didn’t pay for.

• Showcasing how high technology – especially involving the use of FBI secret wiretaps – can vividly illustrate criminals’ behavior like few other kinds of evidence. During the trial, government prosecutors played excerpts from 118 cellphone conversations. During the calls, Pinson was heard plotting with various fellow alleged conspirators about how to illegally make money.

It didn’t help Pinson’s case that on the calls, he and others repeatedly used foul language, talked disparagingly in vulgar slang and racial terms about S.C. State students and strategized in crude terms about how to push aside anyone who interfered with their plans.

A WIN OR TWO

In his closing argument, Griffin portrayed Pinson as an honest family man and a businessman whose very American plans to make money were being twisted by government prosecutors unfairly targeting him.

Pinson did manage some victories: his attorney, Griffin, got Norton to rule that the government lacked proof to send a fifth alleged scheme to the jury.

That scheme involved a proposed land deal Pinson was working on in DeKalb County, Ga.

And the jury specifically found Pinson not guilty on 16 of the 45 counts. Whether this will reduce any eventual prison sentence is an open question.

Before trial, prosecutors said they would ask for some 20-plus years in prison if Pinson were found guilty on all 45 counts.

For Pinson co-defendant, longtime friend and college roommate Eric Robinson, 44, the jury’s seven non-guilty verdicts were sweet indeed. Robinson had been involved only in one of the four schemes on trial – the homecoming music promotion plan. Although evidence showed Robinson had formed a promotion company to work with Pinson, the jury decided that whatever his role in the scheme was, it did not amount to a criminal offense.

Robinson was not seen smiling during the entire 14 days of trial and jury deliberations. After the trial, he declined comment.

But Robinson’s attorney, Shaun Kent of Manning, using the same colorful language he displayed before the jury during the trial, said his client had bested the powerful federal government.

“He stood up to the bully and punched the bully in the face,” Kent said to a pack of journalists outside the courthouse. “It’s been a rough three years, and he never wavered. He’s always said he’s never done anything wrong. I’m just glad the jury saw it.”

A RELIEF

For prosecutors, who had grown increasingly nervous since Monday when the jury began to mull the charges, Thursday came as a deliverance.

Juries staying out that long can be a sign of deadlock.

A hung jury would have meant the prosecutors likely would have had to try the case again, with all the attendant time and expense – and retrying such time-consuming expensive cases are not exactly what prosecutors want their careers known for.

Assistant U.S. Attorney J.D. Rowell, speaking for the four-person prosecution team, said, “The jury rendered a fair and just verdict, and we appreciate it. We present the case, and we ask them to render a verdict that speaks the truth, and we think they did.”

Standing by Rowell as he spoke to reporters outside the courthouse after the verdict were the other three prosecutors: Jane Taylor, DeWayne Pearson and Nancy Wicker.

The jury of eight men and four women came in for high praise shortly before 1 p.m., just after its verdict, from Judge Norton, who just told them, “Wow!” – a one-word expression of thanks for the some 25 hours of deliberation over four days on an exceedingly complex case.

The jury’s age ranged from a woman in her 20s to people in their late 50s or early 60s. There were seven whites, four African-Americans and one Asian-American. In a modern-day America, where politics are marked by polarization, the fact that 12 diverse regular citizens could come together holds great meaning, some say.

“The one thing that binds all Americans together,” said John Crangle, director of citizens’ group Common Cause of S.C., “no matter what their race, age, education, party or ethnicity, is that they want honest government and honest politicians. The people of South Carolina and this country are absolutely sick of crooked politicians.”

With 45 counts to consider, many involving different schemes, and different alleged crimes, with separate sets of evidence, jurors took the time to weigh each separate charge. With more than 25 hours of deliberations, that meant they took about a half-hour on each charge.

Besides the land deal and music-promotion kickback schemes, the jury also found Pinson guilty of criminal activity in connection with:

• The theft and money-laundering of federal funds earmarked for the installation of a diaper plant in Marion County. Some of the proceeds from a $1 million government grant meant to build infrastructure for the plant, which was to create jobs in that rural county, were instead funneled to a shell corporation created by Pinson, evidence showed.

• The converting to Pinson’s personal use hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds meant for ongoing construction of a Columbia public-private housing complex called the Village at River’s Edge. Pinson started the project with Benjamin before Benjamin became mayor, buying Benjamin out just before Benjamin in 2009 announced plans to run for mayor.

On Thursday morning, Norton gave the jury what is known as an Allen charge – a pre-approved set of instructions urging them to reconcile their differences and reminding them that if they don’t reach a decision, another set of jurors will likely have to consider the case, with great expense to the government.

Three hours later, the jury had its verdict.

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