COLUMBIA, SC — New federal criminal charges were filed Thursday against Greenville businessmen Jonathon Pinson and Eric Robinson, some in connection with Columbias multimillion dollar Village at Rivers Edge development.
In a 69-page federal grand jury indictment that cites more than a dozen wiretaps, the U.S. Attorneys office in Columbia is now charging Pinson, 43, with 51 counts of various kinds of fraud and illegal activities and Robinson, 43, with 11 counts.
The indictment alleges Pinson former chairman of S.C. State Universitys board of trustees and Robinson used their political and personal connections and business expertise to commit a host of white collar crimes.
These alleged crimes include money laundering through shell corporations, bribes, kickbacks (which the accused allegedly called love offerings), racketeering, extortion and the use of public money and bank loans for illegal purposes.
Deception, influence peddling and greed were the hallmarks of this enterprise, the indictment said.
The indictment makes it clear that federal prosecutors believe Pinson was the mastermind behind the wrongdoing, alleging he was routinely at the heart of this criminal activity.
The indictment said Pinson and Robinson owe the government a minimum of $850,00 in restitution. A Thursday press release from the U.S. Attorneys office did not specify maximum penalties for the offenses, but its clear Pinson and Robinson are looking at long prison terms if convicted.
Thursdays indictment also contains numerous references to Columbia and the public-private Village at Rivers Edge development, a project on which Steve Benjamin was a partner and developer before he was elected mayor of Columbia.
In 2006, before any allegations of criminal wrongdoing, Benjamin helped Pinson create The Village at Rivers Edge LLC to build affordable housing north of Columbia. Benjamins father, Sam, also was an investor.
But in August 2009, before the allegations of most wrongdoing contained in Thursdays indictment, Benjamin sold his and his fathers interest back to Pinson for $492,500. Benjamin announced two days later that he was running for mayor.
In 2010, the Columbia Housing Authority got a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the project. In 2010, the Housing Authority awarded $5.6 million to Village at Rivers Edge to build 60 townhomes on the property.
Thursdays indictment cites numerous alleged illegal actions with respect to the Village at Rivers Edge, nearly all of which took place in 2011 and involved misuse of some of the $5.6 million. An alleged kickback Pinson caused to be made to a city of Columbia employee for facilitating the Rivers Edge project took place in August 2009, indictments in the case charge.
In an interview Thursday, Benjamin said he knew nothing of any illegal activities at Village at Rivers Edge and never suspected Pinson a business associate for about a dozen years might be involved in anything outside the law.
I had no inkling, Benjamin said. I just continue to pray for Jonathon and his family, and I hope that justice runs its course and everybody gets their day in court.
Asked if he had been interviewed by the FBI, Benjamin said, No. I have not been interviewed by anyone.
Hopefully, all questions are asked, and all are answered, Benjamin said.
However, for now, Benjamin said he would reserve any comment about any Rivers Edge-related matters mentioned in the indictment because he had not read it.
Until then, Im not going to talk about it at all, Benjamin said, But I will say, I do welcome any scrutiny into my conduct regarding the Village at Rivers Edge.
Lawyers for Pinson and Robinson on Thursday defended their clients.
My client has done nothing wrong, said Shaun Kent of Manning, who represents Robinson. We are looking forward to trial very much, actually.
We intend to fight the charges vigorously, said Pinsons attorney, Jim Griffin of Columbia.
Witnesses against Pinson are individuals who are trying to save themselves from being prosecuted by the federal government, Griffin said.
On Wednesday, three potential witnesses former associates of Pinson and Robinson pleaded guilty to bank fraud and conspiracy in federal court in Charleston. The charges they pleaded guilty to are directly related to the charges in Thursdays indictment.
In return for possible lenient sentences, those three men Lancelot Wright, Phillip Mims and Robert Tony Williams are expected to testify against Pinson and Robinson at their upcoming trial, set to begin in late January.
In addition to alleged illegal activity at Rivers Edge, the indictment charged wrongdoing:
• At S.C. State University. In 2011, Pinson used his official position as chairman of the board of trustees to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting gifts, payments, kickbacks, and other things of value ... in exchange for favorable official acts, the indictment said.
Specifically, Pinson used his chairmans position to promote the sale of land to the university to try to get a Porsche Cayenne (an expensive sports car) as a kickback from the landowner, the indictment said. Pinson also used his chairmans post to get a kickback for the university awarding a contract to one of Robinsons corporations to manage the universitys 2011 homecoming concert, the indictment said.
• In Marion County. In 2009, Pinson and others devised a plan to submit falsified invoices to Marion County to get payments at grossly inflated rates for work, which was not always completed. The money was from a $1 million S.C. Department of Commerce grant to refurbish a diaper manufacturing plant Pinson and others were involved in.
• In Columbias St. Andrews area. Pinson was connected to a $3.3 million loan to construct a building there. Some of the money was diverted, federal officials said.
RIVERS EDGE CHARGES
The indictments charges concerning Rivers Edge refer to various unnamed city of Columbia employees and officials and other unnamed parties who played a role in getting money for the project.
References in the indictment to Columbia include:
• In 2011, Pinson devised a scheme to accept wire transfers from the Columbia Housing Authority that were supposed to go toward building 60 public housing units at the Village at Rivers Edge. However, Pinson engaged in skimming by illegally keeping a portion of each of the various wire transfers for his own personal use, the indictment said.
• On Aug. 6, 2009, Pinson had a $5,000 check submitted to a person identified only as Person A as a reward for assistance rendered by Person A to Village at Rivers Edge. In court Wednesday, federal prosecutor Mark Moore said the person who accepted the $5,000 check was a former city of Columbia employee.
• During a 2011 meeting at a Greenville restaurant he partly owned, Pinson boasted about his connections in Columbia and indicated he (Pinson) could launder money through a Columbia-owned business.
• In July 2011, Pinson sent an email to an unnamed person who had helped Village at Rivers Edge obtain a bank loan, offering to give him a payment using federal funds acquired by Village at Rivers Edge in a total amount of $25,000.
• On Oct. 31, 2011, Pinson talked with a member of a municipal city council (apparently Columbia) about getting advice for bidding on a public project to redevelop the Gonzales Gardens public housing complex along Taylor Street.
• In June 2007, an unidentified person apparently connected to Rivers Edge transmitted a letter to an unidentified New York-based investor promising a guaranteed 100 percent rate of return over three years if that investor put up $50,000.
Thursdays indictment also charges Pinson and Robinson with making false statements to FBI agents who interviewed them about their allegedly illegal dealings.
The case, at least two years in the making, has been investigated by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), the Office of Inspector General with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Criminal Investigations division of the Internal Revenue Service.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.