Pinson, Zahn link 2 city council members to development schemes

cleblanc@thestate.comJune 25, 2014 

— Businessman Jonathan Pinson plied his political connections in Columbia, Orangeburg and in DeKalb County, Ga., in an attempt to leverage quiet deals, some of which federal prosecutors say were illegal and greased with kickbacks, according to testimony Wednesday.

As the government’s corruption trial of Pinson and fellow Greenville businessman Eric Robinson winds down, evidence in the case pointed toward influence-peddling by the defendants as well as Pinson scheming for bribes from rich Florida developer Richard Zahn, one of his partners.

Pinson also is heard on recorded telephone conversations saying that Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine worked behind the scenes to help Zahn and Pinson win a contract to rebuild the city’s oldest public housing complex.

“With our team behind it and your political connections ... I can’t believe there would be anybody stronger,” Zahn is heard telling Pinson in a recorded telephone conversation from Oct. 19, 2011. Zahn and Pinson were worried about a competing company, Columbia Residential, based in Atlanta.

Neither Benjamin nor Devine is charged with a crime, though they might be summoned as witnesses. Their involvement with Gonzales Gardens was not described in court as illegal.

But their names – especially Benjamin’s – have surfaced during testimony in the government’s sweeping, multistate public-corruption trial that alleges fraud, money laundering, extortion and other offenses.

The contract for Gonzales Gardens did not go to Zahn or Pinson, even though Pinson is heard on tape saying that Benjamin was influencing the selection of a committee that would recommend which company got the contract. The mayor also helped scout a location for Zahn and Pinson to have a business office in town, according to Pinson’s recorded conversations.

Altogether, the FBI intercepted more than 15,000 telephone calls made between July 21, 2011, and Nov. 28, 2011, for the case.

Testimony so far is portraying the defendants and their business associates as plotters who juggled deals in the Village at River’s Edge, at Sportsman’s Retreat in Orangeburg County, at a Marion County diaper-making plant and in DeKalb County, which includes parts of Atlanta. They got loans to pay toward other loans to keep their projects alive while aggressively seeking new ways to profit.

Zahn also disclosed during his second day on the stand that Pinson was interested in working with him on the proposed Bull Street neighborhood. Zahn did not provide details and was not asked more by attorneys in the case.

“He didn’t think that guy was big enough or strong enough to do that project,” Zahn said, referring to Pinson’s characterization of Bob Hughes, the Greenville developer who is to construct the huge new neighborhood in Columbia’s city center.

During his testimony, Zahn described his executive lifestyle before FBI agents showed up.

Zahn, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud and attempted bribery in the case, said he accumulated his wealth by developing blighted communities. He once owned three or four Porsches and several homes, he said. He could not recall which Porsches were his and which were in the names of his companies.

The 46-year-old said he once sought to buy a $2.1 million Florida home that belonged to NFL wide receiver Santana Moss and vacationed in the Bahamas with former major league outfielder Ken Griffey.

The indictment of Pinson includes allegations that he cut a deal to get a luxury Porsche SUV in exchange for helping Zahn sell resort-style property in Orangeburg County to S.C. State University. Pinson chaired the school’s board of trustees at the time.

“I made a commitment that I would give him a car,” Zahn said Wednesday, referring to Pinson’s help in getting the university board to buy the property in Orangeburg County that Zahn owned. “He would just have to tell me the color of the car and I would have delivered ... a Porsche Cayenne.”

Pinson is heard bragging to the then-wealthy Zahn about the potential of their partnership. “You got the (financial) firepower. I got the political connections.”

Prosecutors are winding down their case and are likely to turn testimony over to the defense Thursday. Pinson lawyer Jim Griffin told the court he plans to discuss with Pinson whether his client should take the stand.

Closing arguments might begin Monday.

Zahn has testified that he wanted the Gonzales Gardens contract “very badly.”

Devine’s role involved facilitating meetings with Zahn, Pinson and others to help them prepare their application to bid on the Columbia Housing Authority contract, according to evidence introduced Wednesday.

Zahn is heard on a Sept. 10, 2011, telephone conversation telling Pinson that the sale of Sportsman’s Retreat for $2.8 million would raise Zahn’s liquidity to about $7.5 million. That would enable him to submit a bid to raze and rebuild Gonzales Gardens.

The FBI’s lead agent on the case, Chris Garrett, said in court that his counterparts in Georgia are actively investigating public corruption in DeKalb County. He did not elaborate.

The names of DeKalb County commissioner Stan Watson and the county’s suspended purchasing director, Kelvin Walton, have come up during testimony in Columbia linking them with Pinson and Robinson.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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