COLUMBIA, SC — Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin, Florida businessman Richard Zahn and businessman Jonathan Pinson took an overnight trip on a private jet to Florida, where they visited a strip club and wound up taking two young women from the club back to their hotel, a witness testified in a federal criminal trial Wednesday afternoon.
The witness, Dr. Charles Smith, a former S.C. State University administrator, said Pinson, Benjamin and former S.C. State University police chief Michael Bartley all flew to Orlando late one afternoon in December 2010.
Pinson, at that time chairman of the board of S.C. State University, is on trial in Columbia, facing numerous charges of extortion, bribery, using his public position for private gain and related alleged violations of federal law. Benjamin has not been charged with any crime, but prosecutors have brought up his name repeatedly in the three-day-old trial as one of Pinson’s close associates.
They were in Florida as guests of Orlando businessman Richard Zahn, who was discussing development projects in Orangeburg and Columbia with Pinson and Benjamin.
Any testimony about Smith’s Florida trip will presumably be backed up by Zahn and Bartley, who have pleaded guilty on various public corruption charges and have agreed to be prosecution witnesses against Pinson. They are expected to testify later in the trial.
Exactly what prosecutors are trying to accomplish by putting Benjamin’s name – the mayor has been repeatedly mentioned so far in the three-day trial – often before the jury isn’t known.
Benjamin’s lawyer and spokesman had no immediate comment Wednesday.
As Smith began testifying late Wednesday afternoon about his 2010 jet trip to Florida, everyone in the normally placid courtroom on the third floor of the U.S. District Courthouse in Columbia sat up. That courtroom is unusually hot, stuffy and humid, and at times, spectators appear to drift off. But no one dozed during Smith’s time on the stand.
At first, Smith’s testimony – elicited by assistant U.S. attorney Nancy Wicker – focused on his responsibilities, what he did at the university and his relationships with other administrators.
At that time, Smith told the jury, he was vice president of student affairs and executive director of a university foundation. As such, he was on the lookout for donors who might fund scholarships.
“(University police chief) Mike (Bartley) was talking about this friend of his who was a rich guy,” Smith testified.
The friend was Zahn, a Florida developer, who that day had been in Columbia and was flying back to Orlando. Bartley told Smith he and Bartley could fly back to Florida with Zahn on his jet and it would be a chance for them to talk.
To his surprise, when he and Bartley got to the airport, Pinson and Benjamin and Zahn were there, and the five of them, with the pilot, flew to Orlando, Smith testified.
When they got there, they were met by Zahn’s limousine, checked into a hotel and then went out to “a very nice restaurant,” Smith testified.
Smith testified he had hoped to sit next to Zahn during supper, but Zahn, Pinson, Benjamin and Bartley all sat at a far end of the table, leaving Smith to chat with two of Zahn’s assistants, with whom he made small talk.
Afterward, the limousine took Zahn, Pinson, Bartley, Benjamin and Smith to a club, he testified.
“It looked like a regular dance club, but then it turned out to be a stripper club,” Smith testified.
While they were there, Bartley turned to him and gave him a “small pack of” $5 bills, saying “Give it to the women,” Smith testified. “I did that.” The money, Smith learned later, came from Zahn.
Later, when they left, “two young ladies from the strip club” went with them. The women entered the hotel with the men, Smith testified.
Smith went to his room, intending to sleep, but Bartley soon knocked on his door, saying, “Come on upstairs so we can check on the guys,” Smith testified.
Smith and Bartley went upstairs, where they saw Zahn, Pinson and Benjamin in a room.
“Was anyone else in the room?” Wicker asked Smith.
“Two young ladies,” Smith replied.
Wicker did not ask Smith for any details about what else he saw.
During his overnight stay in Orlando, Smith testified, all his expenses – plane, meals, hotel room and strip club – were paid for.
“Did you ever get a chance to talk to Richard Zahn?” Wicker asked.
“No,” replied Smith.
Wicker: “What did Mr. Bartley say to you?”
Smith: “He said Chairman Pinson wanted me to tell you if anybody asks you, to say they were never on the trip.”
Asked if Zahn ever donated any money to S.C. State University, Smith testified, “No.”
Smith’s testimony about the strip club visit was allowed to be heard by the jury despite objections from Pinson’s defense attorney, Jim Griffin.
Judge David Norton mulled the objection before saying that while there was a possibility the sensationalist nature of testimony about women from the strip club might prejudice some people, that possibility was outweighed by the interest in putting relevant evidence before the jury.
Earlier Wednesday, former S.C. State University general counsel and chief of staff Ed Givens finished some eight hours of grueling testimony on the witness stand, commenting on dozens of FBI wiretaps of his telephone conversations with Pinson.
Givens, a star prosecution witness who as an S.C. State insider had a close association with Pinson, pleaded guilty in May to misprision of a felony, or knowing about an illegal act. Givens agreed to tell all he knows in return for a recommendation from prosecutors that he not get any prison time. After he pleaded guilty, the state Supreme Court suspended his license to practice law.
On Wednesday, Givens came in for a withering cross-examination by defense attorney Shaun Kent. Kent represents Eric Robinson, a co-defendant in the current case and a business associate of Pinson’s.
Kent asked Givens why did what he did – repeatedly taking part in helping Pinson develop kickback schemes for himself.
“It was a mistake on my part to not think about how severe the consequences might be,” Givens replied, saying that he and Pinson would have gotten money as kickbacks from university vendors, and that wouldn’t have been considered university money. “I rationalized. ... It was a terrible decision on my part.”
While Givens testified under Kent’s questioning that “I take full responsibility,” Givens also said, “I can’t take the entire blame for what happened because none of those situations were created by me.”
Pinson, the board chairman, was the one who thought up the schemes and Givens, as the university’s lawyer, had to go along with them, Givens testified. “These things were brought to me by the chairman of the board, who is my ultimate supervisor.”
“So you’re the victim, huh?” Kent said sarcastically.
Givens then told Kent, “You don’t understand the culture. Getting sideways and getting crossways and not being in cahoots with the chairman of the board is a death blow to your career at S.C. State.”
Kent said, “No, I don’t understand the culture, and neither would Eric Robinson, would he?” Robinson, Kent’s client, is charged with several federal crimes.
“Eric Robinson had nothing to do with this,” Givens said.
That’s where Kent ended his cross-examination – with an assertion by Givens that Kent can use to argue to the jury that Givens said, in effect, that Robinson “had nothing to do with this.”
The trial is expected to last at least three weeks.
The schemes involve violations of federal law at S.C. State University, at the Village at River’s Edge housing development in Columbia, in Marion County and in DeKalb County, Ga.
Also testifying Wednesday was former S.C. State director of student life and leadership Lillian Adderson.
Answering questions from prosecutor Wicker, Adderson told the jury that in 2010, Givens had tried to get her and students to change promoters for a homecoming event that year.
Earlier, the jurors heard testimony from Givens that Pinson had wanted him to get Adderson and the students to change the promoter. The new promoter, WE Entertainment, was a group made up of two Pinson associates. Pinson and Givens were expected to get kickbacks if WE was hired, Givens testified.
But in that case, the students were angered that an administrator was trying to change the homecoming promoter, and Pinson’s associates weren’t hired.
One of the two partners in WE was Robinson.
Witnesses scheduled are expected tomorrow to discuss a Pinson scheme to use federal money to bring a diaper plant to Marion County.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.