Columbia mayor, other politicians, officials could be called as witnesses in public corruption trial

jmonk@thestate.com cleblanc@thestate.comJune 12, 2014 

— Political leaders and some senior Columbia government officials – including Mayor Steve Benjamin – are likely to be called as witnesses in a federal public corruption trial that begins next week.

A list of potential witnesses in the trial of Greenville businessmen Jonathan Pinson and Eric Robinson includes:

•  City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine

•  State Rep. Mia Butler McLeod, D-Richland

•  Columbia’s director of the Office of Business Opportunities, Tina Herbert, a finalist to become the city’s chief attorney

•  Senior assistant city manager Allison Baker

•  Columbia Housing Authority director Gil Walker

•  S.C. State University trustee John Corbitt

•  Former city employee Tony Lawton

Those eight are among 60-some potential witnesses named Thursday at the U.S. District courthouse in Columbia during jury selection for the trial that is expected to last three weeks.

Testimony is to begin Monday in Columbia against Pinson, 44, and Robinson, 43. They face a variety of charges including extortion, conspiracy, racketeering, bribery, making false statements to federal agents and theft.

If convicted, Pinson, a former chairman of the S.C. State University board, faces at least 17 years in prison. His business associate, Robinson, faces at least seven years.

Efforts to reach Benjamin on Thursday were unsuccessful. Columbia attorney Greg Harris, who said he is a friend of Benjamin, would not say if the mayor has been subpoenaed to testify. “I don’t know if he’s on the government’s (witness) list or the defense’s list,” Harris said.

Benjamin’s name was read aloud in open in court as a potential prosecution witness in the government’s case against Pinson, his longtime friend and former business associate.

The other names also were read aloud to determine whether any of the approximately 70 potential jurors might have a disqualifying conflict of interest.

A nine-woman, three-man jury was selected in the long-awaited trial.

Councilwoman Devine, who is out of town, did not respond Thursday to inquiries from The State newspaper.

Herbert, once an associate with Benjamin in a small law firm, said she had no comment when she was asked if she had received a subpoena. She was one of four finalists to be considered for city attorney last month but was not selected.

Baker said no one has told him he is a potential witness. “I wouldn’t know (Pinson) if I saw him.” Baker said he also does not know Robinson. Baker was one of Lawton’s supervisors.

Corbitt also declined to comment on his being called to testify.

Felicia Maloney, who worked with Lawton when he was director of the Office of Business Opportunities, said she has been subpoenaed but had been led to believe she would not be called to testify.

Dick Harpootlian, attorney for Lawton, said Lawton might be called as a defense witness. Lawton headed various city departments, at one point working on public funding for the Village at River’s Edge, until October 2011.

Diane Sumpter, a well-known Columbia businesswoman, said she had not received a subpoena. She said she, too, was under the impression she was unlikely to be called to the witness stand.

Sumpter’s company, DESA Inc., had a contract to oversee construction for the Columbia Housing Authority of its portion of the public-private Village at River’s Edge development. The early days of the housing project’s development are part of the case against Pinson.

Sumpter said she has been interviewed by the FBI and has talked to Pinson’s legal team.

During the trial, the government will try to prove that Pinson and Robinson used their associations with taxpayer-funded institutions – the Columbia Housing Authority, the city of Columbia and S.C. State University – in illegal ways to make big profits.

As such, the government is seeking to open a window into how large, publicly funded agencies like cities, universities and public housing authorities can be used by people to make money – sometimes in illicit ways.

The jury is expected to hear excerpts from more than 100 wiretaps – phone conversations between Pinson and others that were intercepted and secretly recorded by the FBI. Those excerpts were taken from more than 1,000 intercepted phone calls during a multi-year investigation.

A galaxy of law enforcement agents also are listed as witnesses, assistant U.S. Attorney J.D. Rowell said in court Thursday.

They include agents from SLED, the FBI, the IRS and the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Millions of dollars of HUD money went to the Columbia Housing Authority’s portion of the Village at River’s Edge project. That part of the project was later completed and has occupants.

Also likely to testify: six admitted criminals who have confessed their guilt on various charges connected to the ones in the 69-page, 47-count indictment that names Pinson and Robinson.

They are:

• Ed Givens, former general counsel for S.C. State University in Orangeburg, the state’s only public historically black college. He pleaded guilty last month to knowing about kickbacks at S.C. State and trying to cover up his knowledge of crimes when questioned by the FBI.

• Michael Bartley, former S.C. State police chief. Bartley has pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge for agreeing to accept a payoff of $30,000 and an all-terrain vehicle in exchange for allegedly being part of a Pinson kickback scheme.

• Richard Zahn, a Florida developer. He has pleaded guilty to participating in a kickback scheme in which he tried to sell S.C. State a 121-acre plot of land he owns near the school. Called Sportsman’s Retreat, it was pitched to the school as a possible site for a university conference center.

Federal documents say Pinson was to get a $110,00 Porsche Cayenne in return for Pinson’s help in getting the university to buy Zahn’s land. Federal agents stepped in before the land was sold.

• Lancelot Wright, a businessman and former S.C. State board member. A former Pinson associate, Wright pleaded guilty to various counts of conspiracy involving the development of River’s Edge. Wright also conspired to get sizable bank loans for building projects in Marion County and the Columbia area. The loans were diverted to illegal uses, according to prosecutors.

•  Robert “Tony” Williams of Florida. He pleaded guilty to various conspiracy charges involving River’s Edge and other projects. Williams, along with Wright, gave a $5,000 check to an as-yet-unnamed then-city of Columbia employee to help get the project necessary approvals, according to federal prosecutors.

• Phillip Mims of Lexington. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to get sizable loans from banks for building projects in Marion County and in the Columbia area and diverting the money to illegal uses, according to federal charges.

 

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