Pinson trial: Givens’ testimony opens window into university insider dealing

jmonk@thestate.comJune 17, 2014 

When former S.C. State University general counsel Ed Givens learned he was a target of an FBI investigation for bribery and extortion, he went out and hired Charleston top defense lawyer Bart Daniel for $75,000.

The next thing Givens did was write up an invoice for “outside legal work” and get the S.C. State University Foundation to pay half of Daniel’s fee – $37,500, according to his own testimony Tuesday in an ongoing public corruption trial in Columbia.

Givens told the jury at the Matthew Perry U.S. District Courthouse that getting the foundation to pay half his legal fee was justified because, after all, the bribery and extortion matters involved not just Givens, but also S.C. State’s board chairman Jonathan Pinson.

“It was appropriate” because Pinson had persuaded him to do this, Givens said under questioning by assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Wicker.

On the second day of the trial involving alleged public corruption at S.C. State University and Columbia’s Village at River’s Edge housing development, Givens was the government’s only witness.

Givens pleaded guilty in May to having knowledge of crimes at S.C. State University and is testifying in return for the government’s recommendation of probation instead of prison. He also said that after objections from the university about using foundation money to pay Daniel, he paid the lawyer the full $75,000 fee using his and his family’s money.

Pinson, former chairman of the board of S.C. State University, has been charged with multiple counts of extortion, conspiracy, money laundering, making false statements to witnesses and other public corruption crimes. His co-defendant, Greenville businessman Eric Robinson, also faces numerous charges.

In a calm, steady voice that epitomized the steady, respected lawyer he once was, Givens answered Wicker’s questions, opening a window into a world of university corruption, where public officials such as Givens can use their positions and insider contacts to launch money-making schemes with companies the university does business with.

Over and over, Wicker played excerpts from dozens of FBI wiretapped telephone calls between Givens and Pinson in which the two were heard – repeatedly using four-letter words – and then asked Givens to explain the conversation.

At one point, Wicker asked Givens what he expected to get from Pinson if Givens helped the university buy a plot of land from one of Pinson’s friends.

“I was told I would be taken care of,” Givens said.

Wicker: “Who told you you would be taken care of?”

Givens: “Mr. Pinson.”

Wicker: “What does ‘taken care of’ mean to you?”

Givens: “Getting some funds from it.”

The government is alleging five major, but differing, schemes involving numerous actors in Columbia, Marion County, S.C. State University in Orangeburg and DeKalb County, Ga. Givens’ testimony concerned alleged schemes at S.C. State University and in Columbia.

High points of Givens’ Tuesday testimony included:

•  Discussing the business, social and political relationship of Pinson, Givens and Columbia Mayor Steven Benjamin. In 2002, when Benjamin ran for S.C. attorney general and Givens was working on Benjamin’s campaign, they tapped Pinson – a successful Greenville businessman – as a Benjamin fund-raiser. Givens said he met Benjamin because they were University of South Carolina Law School classmates. Benjamin, Givens and Pinson all have socialized through the years.

• In 2003 or 2004, while a lawyer at the McNair Law Firm, Givens testified, he gave a kickback to to a then-member of the S.C. State Board of Trustees. Lawyers didn’t ask Givens what the kickback was for or how much it was.

• In 2010, Pinson, then S.C. State Board chair, and Givens used their positions to break an existing Homecoming concert arrangement and substitute a Homecoming events manager who would give Pinson and Givens kickbacks. When that plan failed, Pinson and Givens began scheming to get their friends’ group, W.E. Entertainment, the winning bid for the 2011 Homecoming event.

•  In 2011, Pinson and Givens succeeded in getting their friends the winning Homecoming contract. They thought they could sell 17,000 tickets and get a big kickback from the promoters, but the event only sold 2,000 tickets.

• Insights into how Pinson and Givens conducted themselves. “We take care of people who take care of us,” was how Givens described the various kickback schemes and favors such as complimentary tickets to university functions. The wiretaps revealed Givens was also ruthless in dealing with people. “Get her out of the way,” Givens was heard saying at one point about an obstructionist colleague. “I want this to be a boy thing.” Givens also was heard slamming former S.C. State board member Matthew Richardson, who was trying to get a financial officer hired. “Matthew – he is ridiculous,” Givens was overheard telling Pinson.

At another point, Givens is heard on the wiretaps saying, “We’ve got a president that we got control of” – a reference to then-S.C. State president George Cooper.

• Givens and Pinson schemed to get a friend, Columbia city employee Tony Lawton, a contract to do a $25 million upgrade project at the S.C. State stadium. But a top official objected to Lawton because he was “too controversial.” Givens said he cussed that employee out.

• Givens and Pinson plotted to make money off various government grants, not just at S.C. State, but at other historically black universities and colleges, a category of institution eligible for special federal funds.

•  As developer of Village at River’s Edge project, Pinson hired a landscaper named Robert Nance to do the work. Nance, a staffer for U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., was also an S.C. State board member. Pinson was overheard on the wiretaps complaining that Nance wasn’t doing the work he was supposed to do.

•  Givens admitted lying to the FBI when agents came to see him on Nov. 14, 2011, to ask about his and Pinson’s various kickback schemes. At the time, he testified, he didn’t know the agents had wiretaps.

Pinson’s lawyer, Jim Griffin, began cross-examining Givens late Tuesday and will continue Wednesday morning.

Before Judge David Norton adjourned court at 5:45 p.m., Griffin got Givens to admit that Pinson always had the best interests of S.C. State University in mind.

Griffin also questioned Givens at length about the deal Givens and Daniel struck with federal prosecutors – a deal that likely will allow Givens, even though he did many of the same things Pinson is accused of, to avoid any prison time.

Moreover, prosecutors delayed filing charges against Givens until last month – a delay that Griffin characterized as allowing Givens to keep on practicing law two years after he’d been fired at S.C. State University.

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