Jury could get corruption case today

cleblanc@thestate.comJune 26, 2014 

A federal jury will get to decide the full range of federal public corruption allegations against two Greenville businessmen despite a legal challenge Thursday that threatened to derail one-third of the government’s case.

Closing arguments in the trial of Jonathan Pinson and Eric Robinson are set for Friday morning at Columbia’s federal courthouse.

The seven-woman, five-man jury could start deliberating the defendants’ future as soon as Friday afternoon.

Pinson and Robinson decided not to put up a defense and asked the judge Thursday to toss out the case, saying the government had not proved its allegations.

The defense’s decision not to call witnesses means that Mayor Steve Benjamin and Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, among those on the witness list, would not be called to the stand.

U.S. District Judge David Norton refused to throw out most of the counts in the indictment. But he delayed a decision on the 16 that deal with Pinson as a public official.

The legal team for the former chairman of the S.C. State University board argued that Pinson did not meet the state law definition of a public official. They said he was a public “member.”

That one-word distinction triggered about an hour of legal wrangling – out of earshot of the jury – that sent federal prosecutors scrambling through statutory and case law. A fifth prosecutor was summoned to the courtroom.

It also prompted Norton to question prosecutors on whether they had established a key legal point in their sweeping indictment that alleges kickbacks, extortion and bribery among other offenses by a public official, Pinson.

Robinson is not a public official but is accused of working with Pinson in some of the schemes.

The 16 counts in question include allegations of Pinson misusing his position to pocket public money or to receive a Porsche Cayenne for influencing the historically black college’s decision to buy resort-style property in Orangeburg County.

The legal clash turned on different provisions of the state ethics law. Prosecutors argued that because state university board members are appointed by the Legislature, they are public officials.

The defense turned to that law’s distinction among public officials, public members and public employees. It states that a public member is someone appointed to a post where they receive no compensation. S.C. State does not pay its board members, Pinson’s lawyers said.

“What is the definition we’re going to give the jury?” Norton asked a contingent of prosecutors who clearly were not prepared for the defense’s challenge. “Are we going to make it up?”

The judge read aloud the government’s language in the indictment as well as prosecutors’ proposed explanation to the jury of the case and the law they must weigh. In both instances, the prosecution called Pinson a public official and said it would be proven to the jury.

“I don’t think you can have it both ways,” Norton said when prosecutors first argued Pinson is a public official then said the state law definition is not the controlling language when the charges involve violations of federal law.

Norton left the courtroom for 20 minutes and returned to say he relied on “Black’s Law Dictionary” and federal law.

“The federal statute is supposed to be enforced uniformly all over the country,” he said, apparently accepting one of the prosecution’s arguments.

Then Norton turned to the defense team. “Your strenuous objection is noted and overruled.”

As he has throughout the nearly two-week trial when the jury is out of the courtroom, Norton broke the tension with a joke. “Y’all can fight it out. I’ll be retired by then.”

Prosecution and defense lawyers declined to comment after the key ruling.

Two other defendants who are public officials – S.C. State’s ex-police chief and the school’s former chief lawyer/chief of staff – have pleaded guilty in hopes of getting lighter sentences. Four other defendants also became witnesses for the prosecution, also seeking probation instead of prison time.

Pinson’s attorney, Jim Griffin, asked Norton on Thursday morning for a directed verdict of not guilty, arguing the government did not prove its case. Robinson’s attorney, Shaun Kent, asked the judge to toss the rest of the case.

That’s not an uncommon legal maneuver, often dismissed quickly by judges.

Norton heard intense legal arguments and threw out the allegations involving public officials in DeKalb County, Ga. The judge said there is no evidence that an illegal deal was struck or that any public official received anything improperly.

The FBI in Georgia is in the midst of a public corruption investigation in the county that includes parts of Atlanta, an agent in the Pinson/Robinson case testified Wednesday.

At one point when Griffin argued that Pinson could not be found guilty of taking money from his own company, Village at River’s Edge LLC, Norton remarked, “Then there’s a lot of bank tellers that are in jail for stealing from themselves.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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