South Carolina

Prosecutor: Columbia mayor played role in money-making schemes

A federal prosecutor told a jury on the opening day of a public corruption trial that Columbia’s mayor played a role in questionable money-making schemes with a key defendant.

Defendant Jonathan Pinson used his association with Mayor Steve Benjamin to “squeeze money” out of people and agencies, Assistant U.S. Attorney DeWayne Pearson told the jury Monday in an opening argument setting forth the government's case.

The trial, expected to last at least three weeks, is taking place at the U.S. District Courthouse in Columbia. Judge David Norton is presiding. Excerpts from more than 100 secret FBI wiretaps of Pinson’s phone calls and text messages are expected to be aired to the jury.

Benjamin – who has not been charged with any crimes in this case – has been identified as a possible witness. Benjamin’s name came up repeatedly during lawyers’ opening statements to the jury, and later during testimony by a SLED agent.

Benjamin played an active role in getting bank loans with Pinson and instead of using the loans to pay for projects, Pinson and Benjamin used the money “to line their own pockets,” Pearson alleged in his opening remarks.

In describing Benjamin’s actions, Pearson was careful to avoid saying that the mayor committed any specific crime. Instead, Pearson described actions by Benjamin that Pearson said he took in concert with Pinson. A spokesman for Benjamin said Monday the mayor was traveling Monday and unavailable for comment.

Pinson, former chairman of the board of S.C. State University, has been charged with multiple counts of extortion, conspiracy, money laundering, making false statements to witnesses and other public corruption crimes. His co-defendant, Eric Robinson, also faces numerous charges.

“This is a case of greed, corruption and abuse of power,” Pearson told the jury. “The evidence will show that Jonathan Pinson and Eric Robinson engaged in ... theft and fraud hidden behind a false veneer of respectability.”

As chairman of the board of S.C. State, Pinson had a duty to the students and the school, Pearson told the jury. “But the only person he wanted to help was himself.”

Pearson said the government will present multiple witnesses who will testify about five alleged criminal schemes involving Pinson. They include Columbia's Village at River’s Edge public/private housing project; a homecoming concert at S. C. State University; grants for a diaper plant project in Mullins; a proposal to get S. C. State to buy property; and an alleged kickback scheme involving DeKalb County, Ga., officials.

In his opening argument, Pinson’s lawyer, Jim Griffin of Columbia, told the jury his client is a highly respected family man and businessman, adding Pinson has been wronged by government witnesses who have pleaded guilty to various crimes and are testifying against Pinson to avoid prison sentences.

“You will hear him referred to as a thief and a swindler,” Griffin said. “He is none of these. Jonathan is husband to his wife, Pamela. He is father to three lovely children.”

Griffin cited a long list of Pinson’s accomplishments and civic endeavors, including service on the United Way board and statewide recognition for being a business leader.

Pinson and Benjamin have a long and healthy business relationship, Griffin said, including a partnership in which they bought the land for Village at River’s Edge in 2006 for $2 million. At that time, Griffin told the jury, the land was “a drug-infested slum called Roosevelt Village. ... Today, it is a thriving community and a bright spot in the city of Columbia.”

Pinson and Benjamin were leading investors in River’s Edge before Benjamin was mayor. Benjamin said he cut his ties days before he announced his first mayoral campaign in 2009. The mayor has said he knew nothing of any illegal activities at River’s Edge and never suspected Pinson – a business associate for about a dozen years.

Pinson and Benjamin also have shared ownership in restaurants, the Columbia Hilton hotel in the Vista and other companies.

Evidence by prosecutors Monday indicated Pinson paid Benjamin $400,000 for his share of Village at River’s Edge. But the form of that payment, and how much cash Benjamin actually received, was not made clear Monday.

Griffin told jurors he will show them the charges against Pinson had their start when the target of a government investigation named Lance Wright agreed to become an FBI informant in hopes of getting a reduced sentence.

Wright, said Griffin, made false allegations against Benjamin and Pinson that caused the FBI to get a judge’s permission to put a wiretap on Pinson’s telephone.

Prosecutors were trying to get enough evidence to bring charges against Benjamin, but instead information on Pinson’s wiretapped telephone has led to the other charges against Pinson, defense lawyers say.

“The case went from investigating a crime to investigating a person, and the result was an indictment that throws everything in but the kitchen sink,” Griffin said.

Despite all the charges against Pinson, Griffin said, his client “did not profit one dollar. ... Not only did he not make money, there is no criminal conduct.”

U. S. Attorney Bill Nettles refused comment Monday when asked why the government had not charged Benjamin in the case.

Robinson's lawyer, Shaun Kent of Manning, told the jury that his client is innocent and the victim of government witnesses who have been pressured into testifying.

Only one prosecution witness testified Monday – SLED Agent Richard Gregory, a key member of an FBI-SLED public corruption task force, whom prosecutor J.D. Rowell used to introduce Pinson bank statements and excerpts of several dozen wiretaps of Pinson cellphone conversations during a three-month period in 2011.

The bank statements showed how Pinson transferred money he got from loans to people like his wife, Pamela, as well as Benjamin, Gregory said.

Former S.C. State attorney Ed Givens, who has pleaded guilty to making false statements to law enforcement, is scheduled to appear Tuesday as a prosecution witness. He has admitted taking a $500 fee for his role in a 2011 kickback scheme at the university.