3 PROJECTS IN COLUMBIA

EXCLUSIVE: Accused schemers courted Columbia City Council members

Council members heard pitches from those charged with corruption

cleblanc@thestate.comDecember 17, 2013 

  • CONNECTIONS VIA EMAILS

    Columbia City Council members are familiar with Jonathan Pinson, Mayor Steve Benjamin’s one-time partner in developing the Village at River’s Edge. But they also had met Florida developer Richard Zahn, who was seeking to expand his connections to Columbia through two other development projects that involved public money. Zahn has agreed to plead guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and attempted bribery in connection with a land deal involving S.C. State University.

    Here are excerpts from city emails showing Zahn’s interest in Columbia:

    “The contract for Willow Lakes was recently terminated due to a failure to get apparent approval from the City of Columbia Housing Authority. Understanding that you do not have direct authority over this group, I do understand from (Gil) Walker that you were in support of the sale and redevelopment plans proposed by Mr. Zahn.”

    Developer E. Craig Wall III to Mayor Steve Benjamin, Aug. 25, 2011

    “Thanks so much for the autographed poster. ... I wish your team the best of luck and I look forward to seeing you again soon. Please do not hesitate to contact me or my office if I can be of any assistance in the future.”

    Mayor Steve Benjamin to Richard Zahn, Feb. 22, 2011

    “I would like to sit down with you to discuss the options on the proposed City of Columbia Industrial Park and Richard Zahn. I have a multitude of thoughts for both .... He has stated he will be in town the week of the 11th of April. I am certain you will be meeting with him then. I will also be meeting with him that week. ...”

    Walker Cate, of Colliers International commercial real estate service firm, to Steve Benjamin, March 23, 2011

Jonathan Pinson and a Florida business associate, both facing federal corruption charges, courted Mayor Steve Benjamin and two others on City Council about more Columbia development projects, according to interviews and documents obtained by The State newspaper.

Federal prosecutors have tied only Pinson’s Village at River’s Edge to their ongoing investigation. But the newspaper’s inquires show that Pinson and admitted kickback payer Richard Zahn of Florida have been much more active in Columbia than had been known publicly.

The corruption case against Pinson, a close friend and business partner of Benjamin, enters a critical stage Wednesday with a hearing in Charleston. U.S. District Judge David Norton will determine whether months of the FBI’s secretly taped telephone conversations from the investigation can be played at trial or ruled inadmissible.

Pinson is charged with more than 50 counts in a sweeping corruption case. Five people have pleaded guilty. Federal prosecutors allege they offered bribes and accepted kickbacks. In one case, Pinson is accused of asking for a $100,000 Porsche in exchange for selling land to S.C. State University, the historically black public college in Orangeburg.

No one on City Council has been charged with a crime.

The corruption case stretches from S.C. State University, where Pinson once chaired its trustee board, to the River’s Edge in north Columbia. No indictment names the two additional Columbia projects that Pinson and Zahn were interested in.

The newspaper learned that Benjamin and City Council members Tameika Isaac Devine and Brian DeQuincey Newman were involved in talks about both projects. All traveled to Florida to meet with Zahn and Pinson.

None of the council members publicly had acknowledged the extent of their ties to Pinson or Zahn until they were interviewed this week – after the city of Columbia took 11 months to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests from the newspaper on Zahn’s and Pinson’s contacts with the city.

City documents obtained show the businessmen wanted to redevelop the city’s oldest public housing complex, Gonzales Gardens, and Zahn wanted to revamp the long-vacant Willow Lakes Apartments on Fairfield Road.

Neither project got off the ground.

Benjamin, Devine and Newman said they attended meetings with the now-indicted businessmen from Greenville and Florida, including flying to Tampa in August 2011 to see one of Zahn’s Tampa Housing Authority projects.

Each council member said the meetings, as are many they participate in, were in response to requests from people interested in doing business with the city.

Benjamin, Devine and Newman flew on Aug. 22, 2011 to meet Zahn – who in February pleaded guilty to wire fraud involving a public official and attempted bribery in the sale of the Sportsmen’s Retreat to the university – and Pinson – who has pleaded not guilty. The council members also met with Florida housing officials so that Zahn could showcase the early stages of his $400-plus million development called The Encore.

All three paid for their roundtrip Delta Air Lines fare from their city expense accounts, records show. The trip cost $505 per council member.

The largest meeting in Columbia among Pinson, Zahn, Benjamin, Devine and Newman and many others occurred Sept. 14, 2011, at the Cecil Tillis Center near Drew Wellness Center. The focus of the hours-long meeting was Zahn’s interest in Gonzales Gardens, according to several people who attended. The plan fell apart after the Columbia Housing Authority rejected three bids, including Zahn’s, housing director Gil Walker, who attended the Tillis Center meeting, told The State on Tuesday.

Another meeting occurred in the mayor’s office, Benjamin and Devine said.

The emails from the city also show that Benjamin pushed for the hiring of Donnell Drummond as director of Housing and Community Development in the city of Miami-Dade County, Florida.

Drummond is Pinson’s half brother and a friend of the mayor, Benjamin said. The emails show that Benjamin enlisted several city employees in getting Drummond’s letter of recommendation written and submitted to Miami-Dade County officials.

“I need to get a letter off for Donnell by Monday,” Benjamin wrote to city employees on Oct. 22, 2010.

Benjamin said Tuesday that he routinely writes letters of recommendation for talented people he knows.

Pinson is listed as the registered agent for Pindrum Staffing Services Inc. of Greenville, which was organized in August 1993, according to records at the S.C. Secretary of State’s office.

The investigation’s sweep

Federal prosecutors have alleged a broad corruption scheme that is supported by a series of intercepted telephone calls.

They will be the focus of Wednesday’s hearing in Charleston.

In Pinson’s Oct. 17 indictment, prosecutors refer to a Nov. 3, 2011, cellphone conversation in which Pinson tells an unnamed associate “about the degree of influence he has at the city of Columbia and elsewhere, and how he can use that influence to benefit” the River’s Edge project.

Pinson and Benjamin were leading investors in River’s Edge before Benjamin was mayor. Benjamin cut his ties days before he announced his first mayoral campaign in 2009. Benjamin has said he knew nothing of any illegal activities at River’s Edge and never suspected Pinson – a business associate for about a dozen years.

Prosecutors also describe a Oct. 29, 2011, phone call during which Pinson and another codefendant, Eric Robinson, discuss “their ‘little pact’ controlling business ties between the city of Columbia and officials ... and how the enterprise could profit therefrom.”

The indictment also said Pinson gave a former Columbia city employee identified in the indictment only as “ Person A “ a $5,000 check for help with respect to the River’s Edge project.

Pinson devised an illegal scheme to accept wire transfers of public money from the Columbia Housing Authority that were supposed to go toward building 60 public housing units at River’s Edge, according to the indictment. Pinson then “engaged in skimming by illegally keeping a portion of each of the various wire transfers for his own personal use,” the indictment said.

The indictment describes the overall schemes this way:

“Deception, influence peddling and greed were the hallmarks of this enterprise, and Pinson, Robinson, and other members of the enterprise cloaked their illegal activities with a false veneer of respectability.”

Gonzales Gardens

A large group of city, Columbia Housing Authority and Richland County officials assembled on Sept. 14, 2011, at the Cecil Tillis Center to hear Zahn pitch his ideas to update the complex at Forest Drive near Providence Hospital into a modern, moderate-income housing community, said several people who attended.

“They were very interested in us as a market,” the mayor said Tuesday of Zahn and Pinson, “and the Garden was the most immediate opportunity.”

Zahn brought Florida representatives of Bank of America, which had partnered with him on one of his Florida projects, according to Benjamin, Devine and former city manager Steve Gantt.

“They were showing the city and the Housing Authority how they could fund the redevelopment for Gonzales Gardens without federal money,” Gantt said. The meeting lasted about three hours and Pinson was in the room, though Gantt said he does not recall Pinson addressing the group.

Former councilman Daniel Rickenmann said he remembers the meeting but was not invited to attend.

“I don’t believe he met with council as a group,” Rickenmann said. “But he did meet (informally) with some on council.”

Zahn presented himself as “a preferred developer with Bank of America,” Rickenmann said.

Housing Authority director Walker said he does not recall whether Pinson or someone else called the meeting.

Walker and his deputy director, Julia Prater, who also attended, said Zahn later would be one of three bidders for Gonzales Gardens. But the Housing Authority rejected all the bids, they said.

“We just never opened the bids because I got the feeling Zahn wasn’t everything he said he was,” Walker said. “Sometimes you just get a feeling on things.”

Walker and Prater described Pinson and Zahn as “big talkers.”

The Housing Authority is deeply involved with River’s Edge, a moderate-income housing project financed in part by millions in federal and city money. The project is far from complete.

Willow Lakes Apartments

Benjamin also was approached in April 2011 by a Columbia commercial real estate broker, Craig Wall III, about Zahn’s interest in a long-vacant 141-unit apartment complex located on seven acres in a doughnut hole surrounded by city property.

Wall wrote the mayor in an email: “I do understand ... that you were in support of the sale and redevelopment plans proposed by Mr. Zahn,” Wall said as the managing partner of Cloud Nine III Partners, based in Charlotte.

Wall said Tuesday in an interview that he signed a sales contract with Zahn but the deal fell apart during the summer of 2011 after Zahn requested a second extension. “It didn’t seem to be going anywhere,” Wall said of Zahn’s purchase efforts.

Wall said he’s not sure what Zahn planned to do with the property but he inferred it would remain as multi-family housing used by Housing Authority clients.

Benjamin said Zahn’s plan was one of many proposed over the years for the apartments at 5313 Fairfield Road.

Housing director Walker said his organization has looked into buying or developing the apartment complex. “We couldn’t make the numbers work,” he said. “If we bought it, I was going to demolish it.”

With Benjamin’s links to Pinson and Zahn now chronicled, a reporter asked the mayor if the FBI ever asked to interview him.

“I can neither confirm nor deny,” Benjamin said. “I don’t want to get into litigating Jonathan’s case or anything surrounding that.”

Benjamin has said previously that he will maintain his friendship and business ties to Pinson, with whom he shares or has shared ownership in restaurants, the Columbia Hilton hotel in the Vista and other companies.

“I want to see justice done,” Benjamin said. “It’s just a very unfortunate situation.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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