May 13, 2014

Feds: Lies and wiretaps linked former SC State top lawyer to homecoming kickback scheme

In a brief court appearance, prosecutors and Givens’ defense lawyers spun a sad tale of a rising star in South Carolina’s legal world who – in moments of weakness – gave in to the wishes of powerful people around him and became part of a kickback scheme at S.C. State University.

Ed Givens of Columbia, a former attorney and chief of staff at S.C. State University, pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday morning in Charleston to misprision of a felony.

In a brief court appearance, prosecutors and Givens’ defense lawyers spun a sad tale of a rising star in South Carolina’s legal world who – in moments of weakness – gave in to the wishes of powerful people around him and became part of a kickback scheme at S.C. State University.

Unknown to Givens, FBI agents learned about his being part in a scheme involving S.C. State when they wiretapped a phone conversation between Givens and then-S.C. State board chairman Jonathan Pinson.

Givens, 50, lives in Columbia. His plea was the sixth in an ongoing series of guilty pleas connected to a multi-year federal investigation into suspected public corruption at the Orangeburg university. Pinson, a Greenville businessman, was and still is a main target. He is scheduled to go on trial June 16 in Columbia.

In one secretly recorded conversation, the FBI learned that Givens had agreed to accept $2,000 for his part in the kickback scheme involving arranging for a certain band to play an S.C. State homecoming event, assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Wicker told U.S. Judge David Norton.

However, Givens only received $500 because the scheme didn’t produce as much profit as the schemers believed it would, Wicker said. The kickback was a reward for Givens’ role in getting university officials to choose a promotion company to oversee a homecoming concert, she said.

Givens kept that money for several days before donating it to an S.C. State educational foundation, she said.

Later, when Givens was interviewed by the FBI about his knowledge of the kickback scheme, he – not knowing the FBI had secretly recorded him – denied knowledge of the matter, Wicker said.

Givens’ concealment of the kickback crime, called misprision of a felony, was what got him charged, Wicker said. In addition to the wiretaps, the government has two witnesses who can testify to his crime, she said.

As Wicker read a statement, Givens – dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie – stood facing Norton, his head slightly bowed, hands folded in front of him. Givens was flanked by his two lawyers, Bart Daniel of Charleston and state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland.

Following court, Daniel and Smith released a statement by Givens. It reads in part:

“I regret being a part of some phone conversations entailing improper activities. But it is important to stress that I never profited in any way from these illegal activities. Not one single dime,” Givens’ statement said.

In court, Wicker said that Pinson, as S.C. State board of trustees chairman, was Givens’ ultimate supervisor.

In his statement, Givens also said he chose the easy wrong instead of the hard right, committing a crime instead of resigning honorably.

“I was in a horrible situation as general counsel to S.C. State. During an earlier investigation of a former Board member, I was accused of cooperating with authorities and ... I allowed this and other threats of retaliation to cloud my judgment.”

Because Givens has cooperated, and because he has no criminal record, the U.S. Attorney’s office recommended six months’ probation. He also stands to lose his law license, at least temporarily.

“There will probably be some effect on your ability to be a lawyer, do you understand?” Norton asked Givens.

“Yes, your honor,” replied Givens.

Norton, who could give Givens up to three years, will sentence Givens later.

Under terms of a plea agreement, Givens agreed to testify at any upcoming trials involving the kickback scheme and other matters of public corruption he may know about.

An expected three-week trial involving Pinson is slated to begin in federal court in Columbia on June 16. Pinson has been charged with conspiracy and extortion in an alleged scheme in which he peddled his influence on the university’s board of directors for personal gain.

A former member of the McNair Law Firm in Columbia, he became S.C. State University’s special assistant to the president and general counsel. He was chosen to be in the 2011 Liberty Fellowship class – prestigious seminars that last two years and are given to people expected to take leadership positions in South Carolina.

Givens also was general counsel for the South Carolina Commission for the Blind, associate attorney at Newman and Sabb and law clerk to the S.C. House of Representatives’ judiciary committee.

Givens is a graduate of the USC School of Law and holds a science degree in computer science from S.C. State University.

As word of a federal probe was leaking out, former S.C. State president George Cooper fired eight high-level university employees, including Givens, in February 2012. University officials withheld the names of the eight for two weeks after their dismissals and have yet to explain why they were fired. Three board members also stepped down within one month in early 2012, two of whom said the board was incapable of reforming itself or effectively governing the university.

More recently, the university, under a new president, Thomas Elzey, has asked the state for millions, saying it soon will not be able to pay vendors or meet other financial obligations. S.C. State is South Carolina’s only publicly funded historically black college.

The school got a promise of a $6 million state loan to help stabilize its finances, but the college still needs additional help to cover the rest of its $13.6 million deficit.

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