COLUMBIA, SC — Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a potential witness in the federal public corruption trial of former S.C. State University board chairman Jonathan Pinson, has declined to comment on the case until the trial ends.
Although Benjamin is not charged with any crime, prosecutors and their witnesses – to the surprise of many – have mentioned his name repeatedly during the ongoing trial at the U.S. District Courthouse in Columbia, and not always in flattering ways.
Prosecutors are not saying why his name keeps coming up.
Neither are prosecutors saying why they keep getting witnesses to talk about Benjamin’s ties to Pinson, a Benjamin friend and business associate.
The trial is expected to last at least two more weeks, and it appears likely the mayor’s name will pop up again.
Prosecutors don’t normally explain their evidence during an ongoing trial, lawyers say. It is only at the trial’s end, during closing arguments to the jury, that they weave a narrative of all the evidence in the case, explaining to the jury what the evidence means.
“Prosecutors aren’t going to comment on the significance of any evidence until they sum up the case for the the jury – nor should they,” said veteran Columbia defense attorney Jack Swerling, who also teaches classes at the University of South Carolina Law School and who does not have a client facing charges in this case. “The defense doesn’t do it either.”
Prosecutors often will have witnesses comment on people involved in a case, Swerling said.
“The fact that Steve Benjamin’s name has come up doesn’t mean that he’s done any wrongdoing or is guilty of anything,” Swerling said.
“Names are going to come up in real life, and a courtroom is really relaying what happens in real life,” he said.
Clues about why Benjamin’s name is surfacing in the trial may be found in the 69-page indictment that charges Pinson and co-defendant Eric Robinson, both Greenville businessmen, with a variety of federal financial crimes.
Those crimes include extortion, bribery, wire fraud and money laundering. The indictment says the alleged crimes took place in different states, including South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Pinson was also at the time the chairman of the board of trustees at S.C. State University, and the indictment says he used his public position to extort money that came from federal sources.
One of Pinson’s methods of operating, the indictment says, was to get close to public agencies and public officials such as Benjamin and use them in ways “both legal and illegal” to get money in various deals.
“Pinson laundered the illegal proceeds of the enterprise through entities controlled by him, and used his political connections and relationships to enhance the enterprise and further its goals,” the indictment says.
The indictment specifically says that Pinson told others “about the degree of influence he has at the city of Columbia and elsewhere, and how he can use that influence to benefit Village at River’s Edge.”
Village at River’s Edge is a public-private development that Pinson and Benjamin began in 2006, before Benjamin became mayor. In 2007, Benjamin and Pinson got a $1.8 infusion of cash to build infrastructure at the razed site, which was once the home of a blighted public housing project. The money was federal money awarded by Columbia City Council.
Pinson had met Benjamin in 2002, when Benjamin was running as a Democratic candidate for state Attorney General. The two became fast friends and entered into business partnerships with each other, seeing each other socially as well, according to trial testimony.
In 2009, when Benjamin decided to run for Columbia mayor, he sold his interest in Village at River’s Edge to Pinson. It is unclear how much cash Benjamin actually received from Pinson himself for the buy-out; he has said he and his father, also an investor, received $492,500.
In April 2010, Benjamin won the race for mayor. At the same time, he kept his strong social and business ties to Pinson.
Last week, in unexpected testimony, a former S.C. State University official told the jury that in December 2010, Pinson and Benjamin had been flown to Florida in a private jet owned by Florida developer Richard Zahn.
Upon arriving in Orlando, Pinson, Benjamin, Zahn, then-S.C. State University Police Chief Michael Bartley and the witness – Charles Smith – hopped in a limousine and were driven to a hotel. After a fine dinner, the five went to a strip club and brought two young women they met at the club back to the hotel, Smith testified.
Under questioning by a prosecutor, Smith testified he saw Benjamin, Zahn and Pinson in a hotel room with the two young women. The prosecutor didn’t ask Smith to provide details of exactly what he saw in the room.
Zahn and Bartley have both pleaded guilty in the Pinson case in hopes of getting a reduced sentence. They are expected to testify and back up what Smith told the jury about the Orlando trip.
At that time, in December 2010, Pinson was exploring, or about to explore, a land deal with Zahn in which Pinson would get a kickback of a Porsche Cayenne in return for Pinson’s help in getting S.C. State University to buy a tract of land in Orangeburg County owned by Zahn.
In 2011, Zahn discussed developing Gonzales Gardens, the city of Columbia’s oldest public housing project, with Pinson and Benjamin, according to city emails obtained by The State newspaper in December 2013. The federal indictment also mentions Gonzales Gardens, saying that Pinson was interested in developing the tract.
In opening arguments Monday, prosecutor DeWayne Pearson told the jury they would learn that Pinson and Benjamin used loans meant for development projects to “line their own pockets” at the expense of others.
But, in keeping with prosecutors’ stance, Pearson did not go into details.
But while lining your own pocket may be unsavory, Pearson was careful not to say Benjamin was guilty of any specific act.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles, asked about Benjamin, said he would not comment. He said because he has been recused from the case, he has not participated in it since “many months before” last November’s indictment of Pinson and Robinson.
In a statement Nettles said, “My fiancee is the godmother to one of the children of a former co-defendant, now a witness in this case. As our relationship evolved from dating to engagement, the appropriate course of action became for me to be recused from this case.”
The acting U.S. Attorney in the case, Beth Drake, declined comment, citing the ongoing nature of the trial.
Swerling said lawyers in a trial keep secret what they’re going to tell the jury in closing arguments.
“You don’t tell anybody about it,” Swerling said. “That’s when lawyers tell the jury what they believe the evidence shows.”