Stage set for Village at River’s Edge criminal trial in Columbia

jmonk@thestate.comDecember 21, 2013 

U.S. Attorney Jane Taylor rattled off a string of statistics, including the fact that the FBI had secretly intercepted 5,103 cellphone conversations.

Her goal? To show Judge David Norton that the government’s use of wiretaps in an investigation of possible public corruption in the city of Columbia and elsewhere in South Carolina had been a responsible one.

“Your honor, we think those numbers are humongously persuasive,” Taylor said, using a word not found in legal dictionaries.

Norton agreed.

His ruling – last week during a pretrial hearing in Charleston – makes it certain that government wiretaps will be played to a jury when the trial of Jonathan Pinson and Eric Robinson opens March 20 in Columbia.

The businessmen face a variety of public corruption charges involving activities at S.C. State University and at Columbia’s Village at River’s Edge housing project, in which Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin once was a partner.

WHAT TO EXPECT

The high number of cellphone calls and Taylor’s use of the word humongous aren’t the only unusual things about this case.

• The trial will feature numerous witnesses, FBI agents, and all kinds of evidence, from covert wiretaps to body microphones to, possibly, bank records. Of the 5,103 wiretaps, prosecutors have said some 700 are pertinent. Excerpts from 20 or 30 might be played to the jury.

• The investigation has taken almost three years and covers events going back as far as 2006. The trial is expected to take up to three weeks. The government is using at least four federal prosecutors – Taylor, Nancy Wicker, J.D. Rowell and DeWayne Pearson.

•  A tough-talking, self-assured but wisecracking judge will preside.

“Everybody says this will take six weeks – but you haven’t been in court with me,” Norton told prosecutors and the two defense lawyers, Jim Griffin of Columbia and Shaun Kent of Manning, last week. Griffin represents Pinson; Kent, Robinson.

Earlier, just after calling court into session, Norton greeted Kent and congratulated him on winning an $890,000 jury verdict in a Manning courtroom earlier this month, then quipped, “I hope it’s collectible!”

In fact, no one quite knows what Norton may say at any given time.

In a 1998 order on gambling, the judge paraphrased composer Meredith Wilson’s lyrics from “The Music Man,” a 1957 Broadway hit later made into a movie, by writing, “Oh, yes, we got trouble here. ... We got big, big trouble. With a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘G’ and that stands for gambling.”

•  There will be numerous charges for the jury to sift through. A 69-page indictment made public in November contains some 100 alleged overt criminal acts and dozens of counts against both Pinson and Robinson.

Most of the charges are against Pinson, and Robinson’s attorney, Kent, failed last week in a bid to get the judge to make prosecutors try Robinson separately.

“Two and a half weeks of a three-week trial would be specifically targeting Mr. Pinson,” Kent told Norton, saying all that evidence against Pinson would automatically prejudice the jury against his client. “Robinson has become collateral damage, if you will.”

But Norton ruled Pinson and Robinson will be tried together, saying he didn’t think Robinson would be damaged “by the tsunami of events concerning Mr. Pinson.” The judge said he would instruct the jury not to confuse the charges.

•  Also, this irony overhangs the trial: The case started out as an investigation into alleged public corruption at the Village at River’s Edge in Columbia, Pinson’s attorney Griffin said during last week’s hearing.

The investigation began several years ago, Griffin told Norton in open court last week, when prosecutors were bringing charges against a Lexington businessman and former S.C. State University trustee, Lance Wright, in various unrelated fraud cases.

To get a lighter sentence, Griffin said, Wright told prosecutors that Pinson and Benjamin, who announced he sold his share in River’s Edge in 2009 before he ran for mayor, had caused $22,000 to be paid to then-city employee Tony Lawton as a kickback to get $1.8 million in public money to build infrastructure at the site.

That allegation by Wright prompted the government to seek a wiretap on Pinson’s phone to gather evidence about the alleged kickback.

However, after all this time and extensive investigation, the government has brought no charges against either Benjamin or Lawton, Griffin said. The investigation did find that Lawton had received $5,000, but the government can’t prove it was any kind of a kickback, Griffin said.

After last week’s hearing, Wicker declined comment on whether any charges would be brought against Benjamin or Lawton.

THE BACKSTORY

The criminal charges against Pinson and Robinson have a tangled history.

Although the probe originally targeted alleged city of Columbia corruption at River’s Edge, federal prosecutors first indicted Pinson and Robinson on a two-count, 8-page indictment unveiled last January. This indictment was wholly concerned with allegations involving the men’s ties to S.C. State University.

Then, in early November, prosecutors unveiled a “superseding indictment,” which for the first time detailed charges involving the Village at River’s Edge, as well as various other charges, including some related to S.C. State.

That one, 69 pages long, charged Pinson with 51 counts of illegal activity, and Robinson, 11 counts. Robinson was not charged with any alleged illegalities at River’s Edge.

Prosecutors often will use the threat of a “superseding indictment,” which contains more charges, to pressure already-named defendants into pleading guilty and ratting out other defendants in return for a lighter sentence.

Already in this case, five other defendants have pleaded or agreed to plead guilty and are expected to testify against Pinson and Robinson at the March trial in return for lighter sentences.

They include Lance Wright, Phillip Mims and Robert “Tony” Williams, who confessed to bank fraud and conspiracy and to being involved with white collar crimes with Pinson.

Another is former S.C. State University campus police chief Michael Bartley, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy in connection with expecting a $30,000 payoff and an all-terrain vehicle for helping Pinson in a land deal with the university, according to court documents.

Florida land developer Richard Zahn, a friend of Bartley’s, has pleaded guilty to getting Pinson to use his influence as chairman of S.C. State University’s board of trustees to have the school buy that property in Orangeburg County. In return, Zahn was to give Pinson a new Porsche Cayenne car.

The FBI learned about Bartley’s and Zahn’s dealings in cellphone wiretaps originally approved to target city of Columbia officials, according to court documents and a lawyer’s statements in court. The land exchange never went through.

Neither Pinson nor Robinson has signaled he will turn state’s evidence – or even indicated he has any evidence to give. Their lawyers insist the two men are innocent.

On Wednesday, Judge Norton looked at defense lawyers and told them, if effect, that if their clients wanted to plead guilty and work out a deal for a lighter sentence, they had better do it soon.

The closer the trial date comes, the harder it will be for a defendant to get a good deal from prosecutors, Norton said.

After Wednesday’s hearing, opposing attorneys said they looked forward to trial.

“We’ll be ready to fight come March,” Kent said.

Prosecutor Wicker said defendants and the public deserve to know all about the government’s case. “You will hear all about it at trial,” she said.

“A trial is a search for truth,” Pinson’s lawyer, Griffin, said. “And if the truth comes out, my client will be exonerated.”

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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