South Carolina

Zahn, last SC State corruption defendant, gets probation at Charleston hearing

By John Monk

jmonk@thestate.com

A federal judge sentenced Richard Zahn, the last defendant in the Jonathan Pinson public corruption case, to three years of probation at a hearing in Charleston on Monday.

“I’m just happy it’s over,” Zahn said as he walked from the courthouse. Monday’s hearing was the climax of a five-year long ordeal of attempted bribery and FBI investigation.

Federal Judge David Norton said he was going easy on Zahn because he had cooperated extensively with federal prosecutors, and he had lived an otherwise unblemished life.

As part of the sentence, Zahn will be required to fund a $25,000 scholarship to SC State University.

Zahn has pleaded guilty to wire fraud and attempted bribery in the case.

A government pre-sentence report recommended that an appropriate sentence is more in the range of 37 to 46 months.

Zahn’s attorney, Andy Savage of Charleston, took issue with that report and urged Judge Norton to give Zahn a probationary sentence.

“Zahn freely admits his acts were inexcusable,” wrote Savage. But Zahn has lived the life of a model citizen, being an Army veteran, a former reserve officer in the Orangeburg County sheriff’s department, successful businessman and father of five.

Moreover, Savage wrote, Zahn is providing “lodging and entrance fees to Disney World and other Orlando attractions for 26 adults and 11 children who are the victims and survivors of the Emanuel AME tragedy,” Savage wrote. On June 17, nine African-Americans were shot and killed by a lone white gunman at that historic downtown church.

Zahn, a Florida developer, had pleaded guilty to participating in a kickback scheme in which he tried to sell S.C. State University 121 acres of land he owns near the Orangeburg school. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud and attempted bribery.

His sentence Monday was the climax of a wide-ranging federal and state investigation into public corruption that extended from the highest levels of S.C. State, to a multi-million dollar federal housing development in the city of Columbia and a state-backed Marion County industrial deal.

The key player in the various criminal schemes was Jonathan Pinson, a Greenville businessman and former chairman of the board of S.C. State University. Pinson, one of only two people in the schemes who insisted on a trial, was convicted in 2014 on 29 felony counts revolving around racketeering and public corruption.

In that trial, held in Columbia, Zahn gave crucial testimony, telling the jury how he paid about $8,000 to fly Pinson, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and another man to Orlando, put them up in a hotel and take them to a strip club. Zahn also testified about how he offered Pinson a Porsche for his help in arranging the land sale.

Benjamin was named in opening arguments as being a close associate of some of the players but was not charged with any crime. He and Pinson were the original investors in the Columbia public-private housing development project known as the Village at River’s Edge.

Benjamin has said that in August 2009, Pinson bought out him and his father from the River’s Edge project for $492,500. That transaction occurred two days before Benjamin announced his candidacy for office, the mayor has said. Benjamin was re-elected to a second four-year term in November 2013.

The federal investigation into Pinson’s business dealings dates to 2010, according to court testimony and documents.

Benjamin talked to Zahn about redeveloping a federal housing complex in downtown Columbia, according to tape recordings and testimony in the trial. The contract for Gonzales Gardens did not go to Zahn or Pinson, even though Pinson is heard on tape saying that Benjamin was influencing the selection of a committee that would recommend which company got the contract. None of those discussions were characterized in court as illegal.

Earlier this year, Norton sentenced Pinson, who chose not to testify during his trial, to five years in prison. Pinson is out on bond while he is appealing the jury verdict and Norton’s sentence.

Five other defendants in the case cooperated with the government, gave evidence against Pinson and received probationary sentences for their cooperation.

Evidence provided by the defendants was crucial in the case. Also key: some 118 excerpts of FBI wiretaps of cell phone conversations Pinson had with fellow defendants in the case. Those wiretaps, played to the jury, were full of graphic language and Pinson’s shameless greed – so much so that Judge Norton told Pinson at his sentencing that the tragedy of this case was that he destroyed his reputation for so little money.

The other players were Columbia area businessman and Pinson associate Lance Wright, Columbia area businessman Robert “Tony” Williams, Lexington businessman Phil Mims, S.C. State University general counsel Ed Givens and former S.C. State University police chief Michael Bartley.

Wright, a Lexington County businessman who also once served on S.C. State’s board, first laid out the schemes for federal agents.

Eric Robinson, who stood trial with Pinson on charges of extortion, conspiracy, racketeering, bribery and making false statements to federal agents, was found not guilty.


THE OTHER DEFENDANTS

Jonathan Pinson, a Greenville businessman and former chairman of the board of trustees of S.C. State University, was found guilty by a federal jury on 29 of 45 felony counts, including racketeering charges. He was sentenced to five years in prison by U.S. Judge David Norton. Pinson is out on bond while he is appealing the verdict and the sentence.

He was described by prosecutors as the “mastermind” behind bribery and fraud surrounding a land deal and a homecoming music promotion scheme at S.C. State University; the illegal siphoning of some $1 million in federal funds to a diaper plant in Marion County; and the theft of federal funds from the Columbia public-private housing development called Village at River’s Edge.

Lance Wright, a Lexington County businessman, was sentenced to three years’ probation. He also is partially responsible for $993,000 in restitution for money he stole.

Wright either knew about, participated in or led FBI agents to three far-flung criminal schemes involving S.C. State, Marion County and Columbia’s Village at River’s Edge.

Wright proved crucial in helping the FBI to learn of the schemes and to get key evidence on Pinson.

Michael Bartley, a former S.C. State University police chief, was sentenced to three years’ probation and 100 hours of community service. He pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge for agreeing to accept a payoff of $30,000 and an all-terrain vehicle as part of a kickback scheme at the university that prosecutors said was orchestrated by Pinson.

During the hearing, Bartley apologized, and Norton told him he was amazed the ex-chief “had sold his integrity so cheaply.” Bartley could have been sentenced to up to 14 months in prison.

Robert “Tony” Williams, an investor in the Village at River’s Edge and other projects, was sentenced to three months in a halfway house and three years’ probation. He pleaded guilty to various conspiracy charges.

Williams, was a successful Irmo businessman running a hospice company who began to participate in questionable schemes only after he met Wright, his attorney told the judge at sentencing.

A federal public defender also told the judge that Williams helped federal officials in the prosecution of former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to a federal offense stemming from interference in the handling and inappropriate release of two illegal immigrants at the county jail in 2011. Neither Evatt nor prosecutors would give details about any of Williams’ help related to Metts.

Phillip Mims, of Lexington, who also cooperated with the FBI, was sentenced to three months in a halfway house and three years’ probation. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to get sizable loans from banks for building projects in Marion County and in the Columbia area, and diverting the money to illegal uses.

Mims, a U.S. Air Force veteran of Desert Storm, was involved in business activities with Wright, activities that became criminal and got him in the trouble with the law, his attorney told the judge.

Ed Givens, a Columbia attorney and former S.C. State University general counsel, pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony and was sentenced to six months of probation. Givens admitted to participating in the homecoming scheme at S.C. State, and became a crucial prosecution witness against Pinson. Givens lost then regained his law license.

Eric Robinson, who stood trial with Pinson, was was found not guilty on charges of extortion, conspiracy, racketeering, bribery and making false statements to federal agents. He was accused only of being involved in the S.C. State homecoming scheme.

Robinson was Pinson’s longtime friend, college roommate and business partner. He died in March after a heart attack at a hotel in Atlanta, where he was a partner in a steakhouse restaurant.

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