Pinson, Robinson – schemers or wrongly targeted?

cleblanc@thestate.comJune 27, 2014 

  • Those who were charged

    The government presented witnesses who testified about five alleged criminal schemes involving Jonathan Pinson and business associates.

    Jonathan Pinson, 44. A Greenville businessman, a partner in the Village at River’s Edge project and former chairman of the board of trustees for S.C. State University in Orangeburg, the state’s only public historically black college. Promised a Porsche in exchange for his help in selling a resort land in Orangeburg County to S.C. State. Fighting a variety of charges, including extortion, conspiracy, racketeering, bribery and making false statements to federal agents.

    Eric Robinson, 43. A Greenville businessman, also is fighting charges that include extortion, conspiracy, racketeering, bribery and making false statements to federal agents. Robinson faces far fewer counts than Pinson.

    Lancelot Wright of Lexington County. A businessman and former S.C. State board member. Pleaded guilty to various counts of conspiracy involving the Village at River’s Edge. Also conspired to get sizable bank loans for building projects in Marion County and the Columbia area that were diverted to illegal uses, according to prosecutors. Has pleaded guilty but has not been sentenced.

    Robert “Tony” Williams of Florida. Pleaded guilty to various conspiracy and bribery charges involving River’s Edge and other projects. Williams, along with Wright, gave a $5,000 check to an as-yet-unnamed then-city of Columbia employee to help get the project necessary approvals, according to federal prosecutors. Has pleaded guilty but has not been sentenced.

    Richard Zahn of Florida. Has pleaded guilty to participating in a kickback scheme in which he tried to sell S.C. State the 121-acre resort property he owns near the school. Sportsman’s Retreat was pitched to the school as a possible site for a university conference center. Hoped to use the proceeds to redevelop Columbia’s Gonzales Gardens. Has pleaded guilty but has not been sentenced.

    Ed Givens of Columbia. Former attorney and chief of staff for S.C. State University. Was to receive a kickback for helping to get university officials to choose a certain promotion company to oversee a homecoming concert. Pleaded guilty to knowing about kickbacks at S.C. State and trying to cover up his knowledge of crimes when questioned by the FBI. Has not been sentenced.

    Michael Bartley: Former S.C. State police chief. Pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge for agreeing to accept a payoff of $30,000 and an all-terrain vehicle in exchange for being part of a Pinson kickback scheme. Has not been sentenced.

    Phillip Mims of Lexington. Has pleaded guilty to conspiring to get sizable loans from banks for a diaper plant project in Marion County and the Village at River’s Edge in Columbia and diverting the money to illegal uses. Has pleaded guilty but has not been sentenced.

Jonathan Pinson was either a scheming money-grubber who cheated his own community or the misplaced target of the full force and power of the federal government, lawyers said Friday as they closed a public corruption trial.

Pinson and his former college roommate, Eric Robinson, have “disregard for everything except money and power,” lead prosecutor Nancy Wicker told a federal jury Friday during closing arguments.

“It’s time to tell Jonathan Pinson and Eric Robinson in no uncertain terms that ... the citizens of South Carolina are entitled to honesty. You can’t take investments from people and put them in your pocket.”

In summarizing their case to jurors, prosecution lawyers said the Greenville businessmen plotted to skim public money from a housing development for lower-income Columbians, to defraud students at their alma mater, S.C. State University, and to siphon public funds from job-starved Marion County.

“Jonathan Pinson had his hand in the cash drawer over and over and over again at VRE (Columbia’s Village at River’s Edge) because he needed money, and he got it anyway he could,” prosecutor J.D. Rowell said.

The jury is scheduled to get the case Monday after U.S. District Judge David Norton explains complex laws that apply in such a sweeping racketeering, extortion and bribery case that is bolstered by hours of secretly recorded mobile phone conversations.

The diverse jury is comprised of six Caucasians, five African-Americans and a woman of Asian descent.

Pinson lawyer Jim Griffin said in his remarks to the jury that the FBI and prosecutors have twisted routine business transactions into a conspiracy and taken selected phone conversations out of context.

“They just picked out the worst of Jonathan,” Griffin said. “The person on those tapes was a proud man, a boastful man ... a man who was trying to grab the ring.”

He said Pinson is a shrewd businessman. “Only in this courtroom do people want to make it a crime to make money,” the defense lawyer said, adding the government had not proven any of its allegations.

Griffin attacked the six defendants who have pleaded guilty as well as the FBI agents and prosecutors who worked on the investigation and the two-week trial.

“The government has embraced criminals,” Griffin said of associates who testified in hopes of avoiding prison time. He referred to them as “guys with no souls.”

But Griffin saved the brunt of his attack for accused co-conspirator Lance Wright, the Lexington County businessman who pleaded guilty and, according to Griffin, turned on Pinson to save himself from an FBI investigation. Wright served with Pinson on the board of trustees at S.C. State, a historically black university.

“He tells a lie, and they buy his line,” Griffin bellowed as he pounded on a lectern in the largest courtroom in the Matthew Perry federal courthouse.

Pinson “is in jeopardy of being separated from his family all because of Lance Wright,” the defense lawyer thundered, “And it just breaks my heart.”

Shaun Kent, Robinson’s attorney, mocked the government’s case.

“Basically they’ve said that Eric Robinson is the great and powerful Oz,” said Kent as he held his suit coat in front of Robinson as if it were the curtain shielding the wizard in the classic motion picture.

Kent drove home dramatically to the jury the meaning of reasonable doubt, which is the standard for a not guilty verdict.

He told a story about how his mischievous little brother benefited from reasonable doubt while defying their father’s command not to slam a bedroom door.

In the tale, Kent invoked sounds (“When a Man Loves a Woman” playing on the radio), smells (his mother cooking collard greens) and touch (a breeze blowing through the bedroom). Little brother told daddy the wind slammed the door and saved himself a whipping, Kent said. One juror laughed at the performance.

Prosecutors say the evidence they presented shows that Pinson and Robinson cooked up a deal to make money by forcing S.C. State students to accept a 2011 homecoming concert promotion company that was a front for the defendants, who had never before put on a concert.

Pinson also stands accused of plotting with wealthy Florida developer Richard Zahn to receive a Porsche Cayenne SUV in exchange for persuading the S.C. State board, which Pinson chaired at the time, to buy Zahn’s resort-style fishing and hunting lodge in Orangeburg County for $2.8 million.

Village at River’s Edge is a complex in north Columbia of about 60 units for low- to moderate-income families, built with $10 million in federal money and run by the Columbia Housing Authority.

The final scheme that remains part of the case is a diaper-making plant relocated from the Atlanta area to Mullins in Marion County. Though it hasn’t produced as many jobs as defendants promised, prosecutors say Pinson, Robinson and some of those who pleaded guilty funneled tens of thousands of public dollars into their pockets.

The defense rested Thursday without putting up any witnesses, including Pinson or Robinson. That also meant Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, who were on a witness list and named on some of the secretly recorded tapes, were not called to testify.

Prosecutors hammered the defendants Friday.

“There’s a ton of evidence,” Rowell said, citing more than 100 recordings used in court from some 15,000 intercepted conversations and reams of bank statements, deposits, withdrawals and money transfers.

He reminded the jury of statements that Pinson, Robinson and the others named in the case made about having “our little pact” to scheme and profit from anyone they could.

“They would backstab another business partner to enrich themselves,” Wicker said. “They needed money all the time.”

She mocked the defense attorneys’ contentions, often saying, “Are you kidding me?” and, “The calls don’t lie, ladies and gentlemen.”

Wicker replayed a Aug. 29, 2011, conversation between Pinson and Ed Givens of Columbia, the former chief counsel for S.C. State, who pleaded guilty. Pinson is heard saying about Columbia, “This is my (expletive) city.” And, “I’ll buy the next congressman.”

Wicker asked jurors to send a message to Pinson and Robinson.

“You don’t own Columbia. It’s not OK to talk about buying congressmen. It’s not OK to use your political connections to gain an unfair advantage. You can’t use your influence with politicians to line your pocket. You can’t trade your position as chairman of the board for kickbacks.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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