Village at river’s edge

More charges filed against Columbia mayor’s former business partner

jmonk@thestate.comNovember 7, 2013 

  • Benjamin’s connection to project Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin is not among those facing charges in the federal government’s case against investors in The Village at River’s Edge. But before he ran for mayor, he was pivotal in the project’s development.

    2006: Steve Benjamin, then a private attorney, makes presentations to City Council for The Village at River’s Edge project, winning approval for city money for infrastructure. He says he, his father, Sam Benjamin, and Jonathon Pinson want to build a $35 million, 28-acre public-private community to replace the blighted Roosevelt Village apartments near the Congaree River north of Columbia. They pay $1.4 million for the site, using a loan from NBSC.

    2007: The city borrows $1.69 million from the U.S. housing department to pay for water and sewage lines, storm drains and some initial roads at River’s Edge.

    2008: Benjamin and Pinson refinance their original loan; the new total is $2.1 million.

    August 2009: Benjamin announces he is running for mayor. Two days before, Pinson buys out Benjamin’s and Benjamin’s father’s interests in River’s Edge for $492,500.

    September 2009: The Columbia Housing Authority, working with Pinson, receives $10 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to begin building the public component of the project.

    February 2010: The city begins $1.69 million in infrastructure work.

    April 2010: Benjamin is elected mayor.

    May 2010: NBSC files a legal notice indicating concern about the developers’ ability to repay the $2.1 million loan. Benjamin’s name is still on the loan.

    August 2010: Pinson and the bank say the loan is current. Benjamin says he supports the project but is not benefiting from it and will not participate in any council decisions about it.

    September 2010: Columbia Housing Authority awards $5.6 million to Village at River’s Edge to build 60 townhomes units there.

    September 2012: NBSC sues Benjamin and Pinson, seeking to foreclose on the loan and sell the property to pay the $1.1 million balance. The townhomes are completed.

    January 2013: The federal government unseals corruption charges against Pinson. They do not mention River’s Edge.

    June 2013: The Village at River’s Edge is bought by unnamed investors, who pay off Pinson’s and Benjamin’s loan days before the property is to be sold at auction.

    Nov. 6, 2013: Three investors in River’s Edge, associated with Pinson, plead guilty to various illegal acts associated with the project and two other projects, federal officials announce.

    Nov. 7, 2013: Federal investigators broaden the charges against Pinson to include activities at River’s Edge. Documents say that Pinson and others paid a $5,000 kickback in 2009 to an unnamed, now-former city official to help with the project and that Pinson later redirected project money for unauthorized uses.

— New federal criminal charges were filed Thursday against Greenville businessmen Jonathon Pinson and Eric Robinson, some in connection with Columbia’s multimillion dollar Village at River’s Edge development.

In a 69-page federal grand jury indictment that cites more than a dozen wiretaps, the U.S. Attorney’s 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 University’s 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. Attorney’s office did not specify maximum penalties for the offenses, but it’s clear Pinson and Robinson are looking at long prison terms if convicted.

Thursday’s indictment also contains numerous references to Columbia and the public-private Village at River’s 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 River’s Edge LLC to build affordable housing north of Columbia. Benjamin’s father, Sam, also was an investor.

But in August 2009, before the allegations of most wrongdoing contained in Thursday’s indictment, Benjamin sold his and his father’s 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 River’s Edge to build 60 townhomes on the property.

Thursday’s indictment cites numerous alleged illegal actions with respect to the Village at River’s 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 River’s 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 River’s 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 River’s Edge-related matters mentioned in the indictment because he had not read it.

“Until then, I’m 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 River’s 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 Pinson’s 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 Thursday’s 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 River’s 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 chairman’s 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 chairman’s post to get a kickback for the university awarding a contract to one of Robinson’s corporations to manage the university’s 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 Columbia’s 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.

RIVER’S EDGE CHARGES

The indictment’s charges concerning River’s 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 River’s 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 River’s 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 River’s Edge “obtain a bank loan, offering to give him a payment using federal funds acquired by Village at River’s 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 River’s 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.

Thursday’s 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.

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