3 plead guilty to fraud in connection with Columbia’s Village at River’s Edge

jmonk@thestate.comNovember 6, 2013 

— Three men pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to conspiracy and bank fraud involving the Columbia housing project Village at River’s Edge and other projects.

During the 45-minute hearing, assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore told U.S. Judge David Norton that a former city of Columbia employee had taken a $5,000 “kickback” from two of the defendants with respect to the Village at River’s Edge project.

Moore did not identify the ex-employee in court, and after court also declined to say who it was.

The three men – longtime business partners – who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bank fraud are: Lancelot Wright, 47, of Lexington, who is a former South Carolina State University board member; Phillip Mims, 46, of Columbia; and Robert “Tony” Williams, 57, of Florida.

All three defendants are expected to be available to testify in an upcoming January trial of former S.C. State University board chairman Jonathon Pinson, Moore said. Pinson was a main investor in the Village at River’s Edge, a project he began with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin before Benjamin sold his interest and ran for office in 2010. The project has since been sold to another group of investors. Pinson has been indicted on separate charges, some connected to his time on the university’s board but none in connection with the River’s Edge project.

Using multiple corporations, Wright, Mims and Williams conspired to get sizeable loans from banks for building projects in Marion County and the Columbia area, according to federal charges in the case.

At times, their conspiracies – which date to 2007 – involved creating false invoices and using independent corporations to divert the money to illegal uses, according to Moore and charges in the case.

Wright and Williams were the main actors in the River’s Edge project, and they gave a $5,000 check to the unnamed former Columbia employee, Moore said in court.

In another case cited in Wednesday’s charges, Williams and Mims “and others” got First Saver’s Bank to approve a $3.3 million construction loan for the St. Andrews Medical Village, then diverted $231,500 of it into a venture called Clam Farm Partnership.

Bank loans, overseen by the federal government, are required to be used for the specific purpose for which they are granted.

Besides getting a loan and diverting money for the Village at River’s Edge and the St. Andrews medical complex, the defendants converted public money that was supposed to go to a diaper plant in Marion County to illegal uses.

One defendant, Wright, has been cooperating with the federal investigators since 2011, and prosecutors will ask the judge not to give him prison time. Wright served on the board of S.C. State University from 2008 until May 2012, when he resigned.

Victims in this case include Marion County, the Columbia Housing Authority – a developer at River’s Edge – and the banks, Moore said. River’s Edge is a combination private-public development whose 28 acres are still partly undeveloped. It received $1.6 million in city taxpayer money for infrastructure, and the CHA received $10 million in federal dollars.

The tenor of Wednesday’s hearing was serious, the only levity coming when Judge Norton – who by law had to ask each defendant what drugs they were on – quipped “me, too,” when Wright said he was taking Benicar, a blood pressure medication, and baby aspirin, known to lessen chances of a heart attack.

Maximum penalties for the three include 30 years in prison for bank fraud and five years for conspiracy. In court papers, Mims is described as a Columbia businessman “and a former banker.” Williams is described as a business investor. And Wright is described as an investor and partner in multiple businesses in Lexington and Richland counties.

Wright was represented by attorney Sherri Lydon; Mims, by attorney Joe McCullough; Williams, by attorney Katherine Evatt, a federal public defender.

Moore did not say how authorities became aware of their crimes, but he did say in court that court-authorized wiretaps provided some of the evidence. The federal investigation has been going on at least two years.

After court, Moore declined to say if more indictments were expected, but stressed an investigation is continuing.

What the feds say:

Lancelot Wright, Phillip Mims and Robert “Tony” Williams in 2007 misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars from a $3.3 million bank construction loan meant for a project called St. Andrews Medical Village.

The three in 2009 submitted false invoices for more than $80,000 to Marion County, which had received a $1 million S.C. grant to help a diaper plant move to Marion from Georgia.

Wright and Williams in 2009 became investors in the Village at River’s Edge in Columbia and paid a “kickback” to a city employee. Mims became project manager and schemed to siphon federal funds from the Columbia Housing Authority, a builder there.

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