COLUMBIA, SC — An attorney for S.C. State University will be given access to more than two dozen secretly recorded phone conversations in the case against the school’s former board chairman.
A federal prosecutor in the case against Jonathan Pinson, the former board member, wants S.C. State officials to waive their attorney-client privilege so he and federal investigators can listen to recorded phone conversations between Pinson and the school’s former in-house attorney, Ed Givens.
Pinson has been charged with conspiracy and extortion in an alleged scheme in which he peddled his influence on the university’s board of directors for personal gain.
A hearing Friday in federal court over the wiretaps shed little light on the investigation into Pinson and others involved in the alleged kickback scheme.
However, the hearing provided insight into how the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina handled a wiretap in this particular case. Government wiretaps have become a sensitive issue after it recently was revealed that the National Security Agency has been monitoring U.S. citizens’ cellphone data for years.
During an earlier part of the investigation, U.S. District Judge David C. Norton authorized FBI agents to wiretap Pinson’s cellphone, which had been registered to Arizona’s Steakhouse, a Greenville restaurant that Pinson co-owned. The original wiretap from July 21, 2011, was to last 30 days. Norton renewed the wiretap request on three other dates in August, September and October of 2011, according to court documents.
The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office followed procedures to prevent investigators from hearing conversations that were not related to the crimes alleged in the request for a wiretap. Calls were intercepted by monitors who then gave all recordings to assistant U.S. attorneys not involved in the prosecution.
Those lawyers listened to the calls and then redacted any conversations that would fall under normal attorney-client privileges, according to court documents.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore and the FBI agents involved in investigations have not listened to those calls, nor have they received written summaries of those calls.
But they want to.
To obtain the calls, Moore asked the judge to grant permission to S.C. State’s attorney, Peter Wilborn of Charleston, to listen to the estimated 20 to 25 calls between Pinson and Givens.
Norton gave Wilborn and S.C. State three weeks to listen to the conversations and decide whether the school will waive its privilege for all of them or at least some of them. The calls will be played for Wilborn at the FBI’s Columbia office, and no one involved in the case will be in the room with him.
If Wilborn agrees to the waiver, then the recordings will be released to prosecutors and to Pinson’s defense attorney.
Prosecutors and investigators already have listened to some conversations between Pinson and Givens, Moore said. The lawyers who screened calls determined some calls would not be covered under attorney-client privilege.
“There were a number of calls between the two that were pertinent but not privileged,” Moore told the judge.
Pinson did not appear in court Friday, but his attorney, James Griffin, was present. Griffin said in court that he later might have issues with the government recording conversations that were outside the scope of the original wiretap order.
Givens, from Columbia, also was not present. He was fired as S.C. State’s general counsel and chief of staff on Feb. 10, 2012, according to the Orangeburg Times and Democrat newspaper. He is not facing charges.
The others charged in the case are Eric Robinson, a Greenville businessman who owns EW Entertainment, and Michael Bartley, the university’s former police chief.
Robinson has been charged with conspiracy and extortion. Bartley pleaded guilty to conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing.
Pinson is fighting the charges.
Investigators have said that he used his position as university board chairman to get himself a $100,000 Porsche in exchange for brokering a deal over land owned by S.C. State. He also is accused of profiting by steering a contract to promote the school’s 2011 homecoming concert to someone he knew, according to the indictment.
Reach Phillips (803) 771-8307.