Benjamin leaves another law firm

jmonk@thestate.com, cleblanc@thestate.comJuly 8, 2014 

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin in his office.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

Mayor Steve Benjamin and his Columbia law firm, Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, quietly have severed their relationship.

When Benjamin joined Parker Poe in May 2012 with the title “special counsel,” the firm, with offices in both Carolinas, made the announcement with great fanfare, saying its lawyers were “ecstatic” and calling Benjamin an “exceptional lawyer and civic leader,” according to a news release at the time.

No announcement was made this time.

Benjamin left the firm June 30, the mayor’s spokesman, Michael Wukela, said Monday in releasing a statement about the departure.

In recent weeks, Benjamin’s name unexpectedly surfaced during a federal corruption trial that included an unpublicized 2010 trip he made to Orlando, Fla., during which he visited a strip club as the guest of a Florida developer. Benjamin has not been charged with a crime.

Benjamin, in Monday’s statement, said, “I voluntarily left my position at Parker Poe in order to pursue other private business opportunities. I still enjoy a great relationship with PPAB.”

Efforts to reach Parker Poe spokesman Ray Jones were unsuccessful Monday.

Parker Poe is the second large law firm Benjamin has left since becoming mayor in 2010.

In August 2010, when Benjamin joined the Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart law firm, its Columbia office managing shareholder Ted Speth said, “Having Mayor Benjamin join us is a major boon to the firm and businesses in the state.”

Benjamin left Ogletree Deakins, one of the nation’s largest law firms, in May 2012. Speth on Monday confirmed the dates by an email.

Benjamin’s name surfaced many times during a nearly three-week federal trial in Columbia.

On June 24, Richard Zahn – now a convicted felon – testified he flew Benjamin, then-S.C. State board chairman Jonathan Pinson and two other S.C. State officials to Orlando in his own jet. Zahn’s testimony helped the jury convict Pinson July 3 on 29 felony counts, among them racketeering.

Zahn testified he spent an estimated $8,000 on the trip, which included using a private jet, hotel, dinner at a private restaurant, entertainment at a strip club and fees for two strippers to come back to the hotel to visit with Benjamin, Zahn and Pinson in a hotel room.

Zahn, who had pleaded guilty earlier this year to his part in a kickback scandal involving Pinson, was testifying for the government in return for a likely lower sentence.

In 2010, Zahn was a high-flying Florida developer who hoped to to sell a 121-acre tract to S.C. State University. He also was discussing developing Gonzales Gardens, a public housing development in Columbia, with Benjamin.

Before becoming mayor, Benjamin was a partner at McAngus Goudelock & Courie for more than two years until he left to start his first mayoral race. Benjamin also worked at the McNair Law Firm, as well as having his own, small firm.

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