Six Pinson prosecution witnesses face sentencing

jmonk@thestate.comJuly 9, 2014 

  • Testimony of five of the co-conspirators at Pinson’s trial included:

    • Former S.C. State counsel Ed Givens spent eight hours on the witness stand, telling the jury how he plotted with Pinson to get kickbacks for hiring a certain promotion company to put on a 2011 S.C. State homecoming concert. Prosecutors played numerous Givens-Pinson wiretaps to jury.

    • Richard Zahn, the Florida developer, told the jury about a secret 2010 trip in which he flew Pinson, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and others to Orlando, wined and dined them. Zahn also testified he paid about $1,000 to two young women who worked at an Orlando strip club to visit Pinson, Benjamin and Zahn in a hotel room there. He also said he had promised Pinson a $90,000 Porsche Cayenne SUV for his help in selling a 121-acre tract to S.C. State for $2.8 million.

    • Former S.C. State chief of police Michael Bartley, told the jury how he was going to get $30,000 for helping arrange a proposed land deal between Zahn and S.C. State University. He testified that Pinson told him to lie if anyone ever asked him whether Benjamin had gone to Florida and visited a strip club.

    • Former Pinson associate Tony Williams, of Florida, told the jury how Benjamin received $50,000 from people who have now been found guilty of public corruption. That money helped buy the then-soon-to-be mayor out of the Village at River’s Edge project. Before he became mayor, Benjamin and Pinson were partners at the River’s Edge development. Benjamin and Pinson weren’t credit-worthy enough to get a loan, Williams testified. Benjamin has not been charged with any crime.

    • Former Pinson associate Phillip Mims, of Lexington, a partner at Village of River’s Edge, testified he and Pinson falsely certified that $3.9 million in federal funds to build the project had gone to a builder, when in reality, much of that money had gone to Pinson or Mims for their personal use.

— Six men who pleaded guilty in the just-completed federal public corruption trial of former S.C. State University board chairman Jonathan Pinson are expected to be sentenced in coming months.

No date has been set, according to federal records of those cases.

Five of the six – including three top former S.C. State University officials – testified during the nearly three-week trial, which concluded July 3. Their testimony, in large part, led to the jury finding Pinson guilty of 29 of 45 charges, including money laundering, bribery and wire fraud.

The other co-conspirator, Lance Wright, a former S.C. State board member, was ready to testify but prosecutors decided not to use him in their case, in which they put up some 20 other witnesses. Wright provided the original tip to federal law officers that allowed them to seek permission from a judge to put a court-authorized secret wiretap on Pinson’s phone.

Wright’s tip led federal officers to secretly record more than 1,000 Pinson conservations in the spring and fall of 2011. Information on those taps led to the guilty pleas of the other five co-conspirators. Excerpts from 118 of those calls were played at Pinson’s trial.

All six co-conspirators pleaded guilty before Pinson’s trial in return for prosecutors agreeing not to seek stiff prison sentences against them. In return, they promised to testify in court and cooperate with the government.

Pinson won’t be sentenced for at least 90 days, pending a pretrial report by the probation office.

Pinson’s attorney, Jim Griffin of Columbia, declined comment.

However, lawyer Dick Harpootlian, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, said Griffin and Pinson are no doubt hoping the six co-conspirators will be sentenced first.

That’s because, Harpootlian said, the co-conspirators – who committed some of the same crimes Pinson did – are likely to get off with little or no prison time because they cooperated with the government and saved taxpayers the expense of trying them.

When Judge David Norton sentences Pinson, federal procedure calls for him to take into account what people received in the same case, Harpootlian said.

“Does that mean that Pinson will get probation because other people did – no,” said Harpootlian. “What it means is that you’ve got to look at the sentence you give Pinson in the context of what the other co-conspirators get. The government will have to give an explanation if it seeks a severe sentence against Pinson.”

Harpootlian predicted Griffin will ask Judge Norton to sentence all six other defendants before sentencing Pinson.

At a pretrial hearing, prosecutors said they believed Pinson should get from 17- to 20-plus years if found guilty on all 50-plus counts that existed at that time. But during trial, the judge reduced the counts to 45 and dismissed one of the five alleged schemes Pinson was charged in, saying prosecutors lacked proof.

Of the remaining 45 counts, the jury found Pinson guilty of 29 charges that involved four separate schemes – including illegal skimming by Pinson of federal money for projects in Marion County and at Columbia’s Village at River’s Edge housing development, as well as kickbacks in a land deal and a homecoming promotion at S.C. State University.

Many of the 29 counts the jury found Pinson guilty of have differing maximum prison terms. The counts included bribery, money laundering, bank fraud, wire fraud, extortion, racketeering and theft of federal funds.

Judges often follow prosecutors’ recommendations, and prosecutors have said in legal papers they will make a motion for probation – no prison – for three co-conspirators:

• Ed Givens, former general counsel for S.C. State University. He pleaded guilty last month to knowing about kickbacks at S.C. State and trying to cover up his knowledge of crimes when questioned by the FBI.

• Michael Bartley, former S.C. State police chief. Bartley has pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge for agreeing to accept a payoff of $30,000 and an all-terrain vehicle in exchange for allegedly being part of a Pinson kickback scheme.

• Richard Zahn, a Florida developer. He has pleaded guilty to participating in a kickback scheme in which he tried to sell S.C. State 121 acres of land he owns near the university. Called Sportsman’s Retreat, the land was pitched to the school as a possible site for a university conference center. Federal documents say Pinson was to get a $90,000 Porsche Cayenne SUV in return for Pinson’s help in getting the university to buy Zahn’s land for $2.8 million. Federal agents stepped in before the land was sold.

In other pretrial agreements, prosecutors said they will move to have the judge give reduced sentences to the other three co-conspirators:

• Wright, a former Pinson associate, who pleaded guilty to various counts of conspiracy involving the development of the Village at River’s Edge project in Columbia. Wright also conspired to get sizable bank loans for building projects in Marion County and the Columbia area. The loans were diverted to illegal uses.

• Robert “Tony” Williams of Florida. He pleaded guilty to various conspiracy charges involving the Village at River’s Edge and other projects.

• Phillip Mims of Lexington. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to get sizable loans from banks for building projects in Marion County and in the Columbia area and diverting the money to illegal uses, according to federal charges.

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