Despite trial testimony, Mayor Benjamin keeps to business as usual

jmonk@thestate.comJuly 15, 2014 

— Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin was all business during Tuesday’s City Council meeting, despite surprise testimony in a recent trial about the mayor’s unpublicized trip to Florida in 2010 that included a visit to a strip club.

And no member of the public or City Council – including council member Moe Baddourah, known for occasionally criticizing Benjamin’s policies – brought the subject up. It was the first council meeting since the conclusion of the trial July 1, the same day Benjamin released a statement about trial events.

“This is city business – let’s just keep it city business,” said Baddourah, who opposed Benjamin and lost last year when Benjamin ran for re-election to a four-year term.

Benjamin said he is focusing on the mayor’s job.

“I’m not taking my eyes off the people’s business,” Benjamin said after a daylong work session that stretched until after 5 p.m. “I’ve been working nonstop.

“Obviously, there are always distractions, but my faith and my family are strong,” Benjamin added. “If you work hard, treat people right, good things will happen.”

Council member Sam Davis said topics from the recent trial weren’t relevant to discussions of city business.

“I haven’t seen anything that directly involves him in anything that’s been alleged in the trial,” Davis said.

Benjamin is conducting city business in a professional way, Davis added, and, “everything is as it should be.”

In the federal trial in Columbia, Benjamin’s longtime business partner Jonathan Pinson was found guilty of numerous felony counts, including money laundering, extortion and bribery.

Pinson, a Greenville businessman who was chairman of the S.C. State University board of trustees, was also convicted of crimes involving the misuse of his office to solicit kickbacks from people doing business with the university.

At the trial, undisputed and unexpected testimony by former Pinson associates described a 2010 trip that Pinson, Benjamin and several other men took in a developer’s plane to Orlando.

In Orlando, the developer, Richard Zahn, wined and dined the men, took them to a strip club and then brought two young women who worked at the strip club back to a hotel, according to testimony. Zahn paid the women to go to a motel room with him, Pinson and Benjamin.

Federal authorities did not charge Benjamin with any wrongdoing.

Baddourah noted that the matter of whether Benjamin should have disclosed the 2010 trip, which was paid for by a Florida developer, is now headed to the S.C. Ethics Commission.

Baddourah said he will wait for an ethics ruling before considering whether he might want to comment.

During Tuesday’s day session, council dealt with a potpourri of topics that included: water and sewer funding, hiring a coordinator of homeless activities, funding arts and cultural groups with hospitality tax money and the Greenview pool.

Late Tuesday afternoon, with the day session finished and a few minutes before a lengthy night council meeting was set to start, Benjamin chuckled about a comment noting an increase in grey in his hair.

“When I started this job I was about two inches taller,” Benjamin said, “and had a lot less grey.”

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