Fla. developer pleads in SC State kickback probe

The Associated PressFebruary 9, 2013 

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A developer pleaded guilty Friday to his role in an alleged kickback scheme involving South Carolina State University, admitting he arranged to buy a Porsche SUV for a trustee in exchange for help with a land deal.

During a brief hearing in Charleston, Richard Zahn pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to defraud the federal government, according to defense attorney Andy Savage.

Prosecutors say the Longwood, Fla., developer owned land near the university called the “Sportsman’s Retreat” and asked trustee Jonathan Pinson to help him sell it to the school for $2.8 million. As a “thank you” gift for his help, prosecutors say Zahn told Pinson during an October 2011 phone call that he would buy him a Porsche SUV.

Zahn, 44, is the fourth person to be charged in the case, and federal authorities have said they expect more indictments to follow. In addition to working out the Porsche deal for himself, prosecutors say Pinson also conspired with a Greenville businessman, Eric Robinson, to get kickbacks in exchange for using Robinson’s entertainment company to promote a 2011 homecoming concert at S.C. State.

Both Pinson and Robinson have pleaded not guilty to federal kickback charges. They face up to 20 years each in prison if convicted.

South Carolina State’s former campus police chief has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy and agreed to help prosecutors. Authorities said they monitored Pinson’s phone calls in 2011 and learned of his deal with Michael Bartley, who they said also agreed to help promote the property sale – which never happened – in exchange for about $30,000 and an all-terrain vehicle.

Zahn, who has a family connection to the Orangeburg area, is a philanthropist who was trying to help out the school by selling the land at a good price but instead got wrapped up in what ended up being a corrupt deal, Savage said.

“There was an opportunity to make money in the area, but that certainly wasn’t the motivation,” Savage said.

Savage stressed that his client immediately agreed to help authorities with their investigation, which the attorney said he believes extends far beyond S.C. State.

“He was not aware of the pervasive climate of corruption, the culture of corruption, at S.C. State. … Once he found out there was a cost of doing business, he succumbed to that,” Savage said. “If there’s a rat in the room, I think it’s Pinson.”

Pinson has several business interests in the Columbia area and is a former partner of Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin in the Village at River’s Edge development.

Pinson joined the South Carolina State board of trustees in 2005 and served as its chairman for several years until last February. He decided then to resign the leadership post, but held on to his seat on the board before leaving altogether in December, citing professional and family obligations.

Zahn is free on bond and faces up to five years in prison when he’s sentenced later. But Zahn has been cooperating with the FBI, and prosecutors said in a plea agreement they would agree to three years of probation if he continues to help them.

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State staffers contributed to this report.

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