COLUMBIA SC — In the wake of public corruption charges against two former South Carolina State University officials, a college leader said Thursday said hes unsure whether any other campus authorities or ex-officials might be arrested.
I wouldnt want to speculate, board of trustees chairman Walter Tobin said of the FBI investigation that resulted in charges against Tobins predecessor on the board as well as a former campus police chief.
Under questioning by reporters, Tobin said no money is missing from the 116-year-old historically black university in Orangeburg.
Tobin spoke within three hours of disclosures that S.C. States former board of trustees chairman Jonathan Pinson had been charged in a kickback scheme that accuses him of pedaling his influence as a university leader to get himself a $100,000 vehicle in exchange for brokering a land deal. He also is accused of profiting by steering a contract to someone he knew to promote the schools 2011 homecoming concert.
Pinson, a Greenville businessman, used his position as chairman of the board to enrich himself, a federal indictment issued under seal Dec. 19 states.
The indictment, alleging extortion and conspiracy by a public official, was made public as Pinson and alleged co-conspirator Eric Robinson, both handcuffed and shackled in a Columbia courtroom, entered not guilty pleas.
Lawyers for Pinson and Robinson said the charges are baseless and flawed. They said their clients intend to fight them.
Robinson, like Pinson, is a Greenville businessman. He owns EW Entertainment, a concert promotion company. He is charged with being part of a kickback scheme involving the homecoming concert.
Pinson, 42, also is accused of conspiring with fired campus police chief Michael Bartley and Florida businessman Richard Zahn to try to get the university to buy property Zahn owns in Orangeburg County known as Sportsmans Retreat.
Sportsmans Retreat, on a sprawling tract along Wild Hearts Road outside of the city of Orangeburg, has several buildings, including meeting space, and is on a lake.
Pinsons payoff for greasing the sale of Sportsmans Retreat was to be a Porsche Cayenne, federal prosecutor Mark Moore said. But investigators were able to head off the transaction before it occurred, Moore said, without elaborating during the hearing for the former campus police chief, Bartley, in Charleston on Thursday.
The FBI intercepted at least eight conversations between Sept. 10, 2011, and Nov. 1, 2011, using wiretaps, according to the government. On Oct. 17, 2011, Zahn told Pinson that as soon as the university bought the property, Pinson would have a Cayenne in his backyard.
Zahn also owns interests in a Florida construction company and was involved in business ventures in Columbia and the Atlanta area with Pinson, according to court documents
Zahn has not been charged, Moore said.
Bartley, 48, admitted his guilt to the felony charge of conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing. He was expecting a payoff of $30,000 and an all-terrain vehicle in exchange for helping Pinson with the deal, Moore said.
Bartley wore a business suit and was not restrained during his hearing. He faces up to five years and a $250,000 fine for participating in the scheme.
Bartley had been police chief about five years before the university fired him last winter during an internal investigation that was never completed.
Moore said his office might support a reduced sentence for Bartley because he cooperated as soon as the FBI contacted him and he has been truthful.
Pinson, Robinson to fight charges
Pinson and Robinson each face up to 20 years and $250,000 fines on each count. Pinson faces three counts, including conspiracy and extortion involving the property sale and the concert.
Pinson was released on a $25,000 bond.
He never has taken any money and he never has asked for any money for any decision that he made as a board of trustees member, his lawyer, Jim Griffin, said after a hearing in Columbia, also on Thursday.
Robinson faces two counts of conspiracy and involvement in the extortion. He was released after posting a$15,000.
His attorney, Shaun Kent, said Robinson has maintained his innocence from Day One, and has never taken a dollar.
The indictment also contends Robinson helped Pinson collect kickbacks.
In one scheme, Pinson and Robinson allegedly conspired to solicit a kickback from Zahn in connection with paying off an unnamed Georgia public official in connection with the concert. The indictment does not make details of the scheme clear.
The states top federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles, issued a statement Thursday making it clear that his office is not accusing the university of participating in crimes.
South Carolina State University and its students are the victims of the crime charged ... not the target, Nettles said.
Pinson had been on the colleges board since 2005. He served as chairman about 2½ years, until February when he resigned the post. He left the board altogether last month, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Court documents that became public Thursday show that Pinson was indicted on Dec. 19. But the charges were kept secret by prosecutors under a court order.
Rocky year at university
The charges cap a tumultuous year for S.C. State.
The turmoil was deep even for a university that has been roiled by controversy for years.
Board chairman Tobin said Thursday that school officials became generally aware of criminal allegations around December 2011.
At that time, he said, then-president George E. Cooper quickly hired Reggie Lloyd the ex-director of SLED, the former top federal prosecutor in South Carolina and once a circuit court judge to conduct an internal investigation.
Tobin said Lloyd was hired to cooperate with the federal investigation.
Lloyds internal investigation led to Bartleys firing in February 2012 along with seven other top S.C. State officials, Tobin said. The university has never disclosed the allegations or said why the eight were dismissed.
Before Lloyd could finish his investigation, president Cooper had left the college in March and Tobin suspended the probe on March 30, saying that Cooper not the board had retained Lloyd. The board did not ask Lloyd for a report of his findings.
During last years turmoil, three board members stepped down within one month. Two of them said the board was incapable of reforming itself or effectively governing the university.
Pinsons resignation of his leadership post also set off contentious fights for the chairmanship that Tobin ultimately won.
The schools struggles include decreasing student enrollment, which dropped by about 525 students from 2010-11 to 2011-12. The university ran a $5.5 million deficit that resulted in a hiring freeze and an across-the-board 7 percent cut in expenses.
Tobin quickly distanced the university from the criminal charges.
He said Thursday he is moving to designate a chief auditor as well as an officer to oversee compliance and ethics. The finance office already has tightened procurement procedures, he said.
He noted that those individuals accused are no longer associated with S.C. State University.
Our commitment going forward is to provide a culture of high integrity, accountability and transparency, he said during a news conference. One of the things you cant do is police every individual.
But when irregularities are discovered, We will take the appropriate action, Tobin said.
Pinson has ties to Columbia.
He was a co-investor with Mayor Steve Benjamin in a residential development project north of the city called the Village at Rivers Edge. Benjamin sold his involvement just days before he announced his 2010 candidacy for mayor.
Both have been sued by NBSC bank to recoup loans it made to them to develop the project. Benjamin was named in the suit because he signed as a guarantor on the loan, the banks lawyer said when the suit became public last year.
Pinson, Benjamin and others also founded the African-American Business Roundtable, which was intended to formulate public policies that affect minority-owned businesses and the economic status of black South Carolinians.
Efforts to reach Benjamin on Thursday evening were unsuccessful.
Staff writer John Monk contributed to this article. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.