Former SC State University official’s rise undone by quest for payoffs

Prosecutors allege former S.C. State official solicited kickbacks

cleblanc@thestate.comJanuary 12, 2013 

— It is his business sense that made Jonathan Pinson stand out, those who know him said.

Combine that skill with a winning personality and plenty of energy, and you get a man sure to succeed.

Pinson, of Greenville, piled up business ventures and enjoyed the embrace that achievement brings: a coveted fellowship, mentors, membership on boards, rubbing elbows with business titans and up-and-comers. He even won legislative approval for a seat on the board of his alma mater, S.C. State University in Orangeburg. Pinson became its chairman.

But along the way, the 42-year-old father of three got greedy, federal prosecutors say.

Pinson offered to broker the sale of resort property to S.C. State University that would have landed a pulse-racing payoff – a $100,000 German cross-over vehicle, according to charges disclosed Thursday.

That is one of two conspiracies alleged in an indictment that portrays Pinson as a corrupt schemer looking for ways to fatten his wallet.

“Pinson used his position as chairman of the board to illegally enrich himself,” the three-count felony indictment unsealed Thursday states. Using wiretaps, the FBI captured many telephone conversations, including one on Oct. 17, 2011, in which Pinson and a Florida businessman discuss a Porsche Cayenne as a payoff for Pinson getting the college to buy the man’s property in Orangeburg County known as “Sportsman’s Retreat.”

A video advertising the Sportsman’s Retreat says it initially had a $5.8 million price tag. The price has been reduced to a reported $3.3 million.

Pinson faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 fines on each of three charges, which he has vowed to fight.

More charges could be coming, U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said after court hearings Thursday.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin is among those who knows Pinson well.

“We’ve been friends for 11 years, and eventually it became a business relationship,” Benjamin said. “I hope this all resolves itself with the truth ... to the satisfaction of Jon and the university. I’m praying for all parties involved.”

The two men were introduced in 2000 or 2001 by a mutual friend, Benjamin recalled Friday. They have become involved in several joint investments in Columbia.

“Most people who you talk to would say Jon is very likeable, very affable,” the mayor said. “Everyone I’ve talked to so far (since the indictment) was shocked.”

But his friendship with Pinson is so tight that Benjamin knew of the investigation and is among those Pinson notified of the impending charges.

Pinson telephoned the weekend before extortion by a public official and kickback charges were disclosed Thursday, Benjamin said. The indictment was approved Dec. 19 by a federal grand jury but was under seal by court order.

Benjamin said his friend did not routinely update him on the monthslong investigation. “He didn’t keep me abreast, and I preferred it that way.”

The mayor said he will not cut his business ties to Pinson.

“As he’s fighting these charges, I don’t plan to divest myself of these investments,” said Benjamin, an attorney who cited the presumption of innocence in criminal cases.

Their first venture was to join more than a dozen investors in the Hilton hotel in the Vista, said Benjamin, who had not run for office at the time.

That was followed by a public-private venture to build the Village at River’s Edge, affordable housing in north Columbia that has grown controversial and embroiled both men in a lawsuit from the bank that loaned them $2.1 million. Two days before announcing his 2010 mayoral candidacy, Benjamin said he had sold his interest to Pinson. But his name remained on the bank loan, which has about a $1.1 million balance.

Pinson and Benjamin also are among the owners of Arizona’s Steakhouse in the Village at Sandhill, a regional shopping mall in Northeast Richland.

Benjamin characterized their separate stakes in the hotel as small. He has declined to say how much money he put into the hotel. But Benjamin said that both shares would add up to a “moderate” investment in the property.

“No one owns more than 20 percent of the hotel,” Benjamin said.

Their share of the restaurant amounts to “a minority interest,” he said.

Hayne Hipp, the former chief executive office of Liberty Corp., a Greenville insurance and broadcast holding company, has stuck by Pinson throughout the investigation, Pinson’s attorney, Jim Griffin said.

Hipp was traveling Friday and could not be reached, Griffin said.

Pinson was in the 2004 inaugural class of Hipp’s Liberty Fellows. The initiative was created to identify and promote leadership across the state. Hipp said at the time that its commitment was to make South Carolina a better place to live.

Efforts Friday to reach others who groomed Pinson during his youth and young adulthood in Greenville’s west side were unsuccessful. Phone messages left for a mentor, a former pastor and business associates were not returned.

Walter Tobin, who succeeded Pinson as chairman of S.C. State’s board, describes his predecessor as “very bright,” “personable,” “a lot of energy” and most of all with an “acumen for business.”

“That was his strong suit,” Tobin said. “I think he was highly respected in the business community.”

Tobin, a longtime educator, said he met Pinson when on the board, which Pinson joined in 2005.

Pinson would join the board’s finance committee, become vice chairman and serve as chairman for 2½ years until he stepped down from the top post in February during the then-secret federal probe. Pinson would remain on the board until after he was notified of the sealed indictment in December.

Asked if Pinson showed interest in any particular discipline of the university’s curriculum, Tobin said, “He was always interested in the business aspect of the university, the finances.”

Tobin said he and others heard “rumors” that board members were among those being investigated.

The rumblings grew to the point that board member Matthew Richardson, a Columbia attorney, called out his fellow board members without naming anyone.

In a March 8, 2012, letter to the trustees, Richardson said that any board member “whose activities are under investigation or have conflicts of interest” should resign. He criticized those with personal agendas or who were involved in “self dealing,” The (Orangeburg) Times and Democrat reported.

About six weeks later, Richardson and board member Gen. Walter F. Johnson III stepped down. Their resignation letter said the board could not “reform itself or effectively govern” the college.

On Friday, Richardson was among those who would not discuss Pinson.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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