IT REMAINS a mystery why prosecutors went out of their way to feature Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin so prominently in the public corruption trial of Jonathan Pinson.
Not only was the mayor accused of activities that might cause him some personal and political angst, activities he later acknowledged, but prosecutors opened their case by promising to show how the mayor and Mr. Pinson used loans meant for development projects to “line their own pockets.”
It almost appeared that Mr. Benjamin also was on trial, although he never was charged with a crime and prosecutors never presented any evidence that suggested he had done anything illegal. Unsavory, perhaps, but not illegal.
Prosecutors’ clearly deliberate approach not only cast the mayor in a poor light but also raised questions about their intent. We understand that it was important to establish that Mr. Pinson used close relationships with elected officials to further his schemes, and Mr. Benjamin was a key ally. Details about the extent of those relationships needed to be revealed. But the prosecution never produced any information to justify such an intense, tilted focus on Mayor Benjamin.
Never miss a local story.
Unless there’s more to this story, it seems that prosecutors have some explaining to do.
That said, Mr. Benjamin will have to deal with the political fallout, primarily dealing with his close business and personal association with Mr. Pinson, who was convicted on 29 felony counts last week. Mr. Benjamin will be challenged to explain his actions as well as his business relationship with a convicted felon.
And one matter that arose in the Pinson trial demands Mr. Benjamin’s immediate action: The mayor took a trip to Orlando in 2010, during which he and others attended a strip club, that was paid for by a Florida developer.
State Ethics Commission attorney Kathy Hazelwood has said that Mr. Benjamin should report the trip on his statement of economic interests because it was related to his role as mayor and an economic development project. But the mayor said in a statement that he is “confident that after a thorough review of all of the facts” the commission will find that it was a personal business trip that doesn’t need to be reported.
The truth is that the law requiring public officials to report gifts “if there is reason to believe the donor would not give the thing of value but for the public official’s position” leaves a lot of wiggle room for public officials. But while Mr. Benjamin may well be able to supply an explanation that fits within the law and allows him to forgo reporting the trip, he shouldn’t. He should voluntarily disclose it.
No, we can’t say that this wasn’t a business trip; only Mr. Benjamin and those with him truly know that. But what we do know is that he was Columbia’s mayor at that time and that he remains so today. We also know that if he didn’t have reason a month ago to believe that the developer paid for his trip because he was mayor, he certainly has good reason to believe that today. The good, right and ethically pure thing to do is for Mr. Benjamin to report this matter on his disclosure form — an act that would put this question to rest.
This should serve as a wake-up call for Mr. Benjamin and other elected officials in regard to how they handle trips and other gifts. They should be careful to review the nature of their trips — those they have already taken and those they might take in the future — to determine whether they are business-related or connected to their official duties; when in doubt, they should err on the side of disclosure.
It’s no surprise that such questions would arise with respect to Mr. Benjamin — or any other part-time elected official. Part-time officials typically have to hold down jobs to care for their families — jobs that could lead to conflicts as they conduct the people’s business. If Mr. Benjamin were a full-time mayor who worked only for and was beholden only to Columbia, there would be no question as to whether he had to report this trip.
Even if there are questions, though, a leader dedicated to integrity and openness would seek to remove any doubt by reporting this matter on his disclosure form. We expect nothing less from Mayor Benjamin.