July 21, 2014

Pinson: Judge should overrule verdict or grant new trial

Convicted former SC State University board chairman asks judge to overturn his July 3 conviction or grant him a new trial

Jonathan Pinson has asked the presiding judge to overturn his federal public corruption conviction or grant him a new trial.

The former chairman of the S.C. State University board argues in a 28-page motion filed Friday that the jury’s verdict is contradictory because Pinson was convicted July 3 on 29 counts of racketeering, kickbacks, money laundering and other offenses in four schemes but was acquitted on other counts that involved similar evidence.

“The jury was hopelessly confused regarding the law and evidence to be applied,” the motion by Pinson’s defense team states. “In addition, the jury acquitted Pinson of (12 of 14 counts of wire fraud). All fourteen counts ... alleged the same scheme... .”

Prosecutors have yet to respond to Pinson’s request, and it’s unclear whether Judge David Norton will schedule a hearing or rule based on written arguments. The defense says Norton made key mistakes, too, during the three-week trial.

Each of the grounds Pinson cites in the detailed motion were raised during the trial and Norton ruled against the defense. The objections also are likely to be fodder in any appeal Pinson might file with the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

Among the grounds asserted for overturning the verdict or granting a new trial are that prosecutors failed to prove that Pinson was a public official or that offers of bribes such as a $100,000 Porsche SUV prompted him to act differently from how he would have acted officially in two S.C. State schemes the government alleged.

“Because Pinson was not proven to be a public official as charged by the grand jury, all counts of guilty in which Pinson was alleged to be a public official must be vacated as a matter of law and fact,” defense lawyers Jim Griffin of Columbia and Brian Steel of Atlanta wrote.

Pinson was an unpaid appointee to the historically black college’s board, which made him a public “member” under the state ethics law – not a public “official,” the defense argues.

“Pinson’s support of the purchase of the (Sportsman’s Retreat) property (by S.C. State) occurred well before there was ever a discussion of a Porsche Cayenne,” the motion states. “Examination of the evidence illustrates that Pinson never asked (Florida developer Richard) Zahn for anything – instead Zahn made an unsolicited offer to purchase the vehicle for Pinson.”

“The court (Norton), over Pinson’s timely and vehement objections, failed to define public official the way that public official is cemented in South Carolina law,” Griffin and Steel wrote. “Instead, the court employed a dictionary definition of a public official.”

The defense also contends that Pinson could not have illegally skimmed money from construction contractor, SK Builders, the company Pinson hired to build public housing at north Columbia’s Village at River’s Edge.

“First, there is no evidence that Pinson or anyone else embezzled, stole, obtained by fraud and intentionally misapplied property of VRE (Village at River’s Edge),” according to the motion. “... all sixty of the public housing units were completed at the VRE site as agreed ... there was no evidence that the CHA (Columbia Housing Authority, which oversees the 60 townhouses) and HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provided $10 million in grants) were deprived of what they paid for, and, at best ... such conduct was deceitful and not intended to be fraudulent.”

A forensic accountant with the FBI testified that Pinson and a co-conspirator misused about $235,000 of federal money that should have to gone to SK.

“The question is whether VRE authorized Pinson to withhold payment to S&K (sic),” the lawyers wrote. “... Pinson was VRE and he had carte blanche to act on its behalf. The undisputed evidence was that VRE had agreed ... to share the builder’s profit and overhead. Without evidence of what the agreed upon split was, there is no basis to support a jury’s finding that Pinson withheld more than the agreed upon amount.”

Pinson neither took the stand nor offered any witnesses during the trial. He is facing up to 20 years in prison, and is scheduled to be sentenced this summer or early in the fall.

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