June 11, 2014

Jury selection begins Thursday in federal public corruption trial with Columbia connections

The trial of two Greenville businessmen on charges that include money laundering through shell corporations, bribes, kickbacks, racketeering, extortion and the use of public money and bank loans for illegal purposes, opens Thursday.

Secret FBI wiretaps. Informants. A rogue cop and a crooked lawyer. A Columbia Housing Authority project. S.C. State University. Alleged bribes and kickbacks. Millions of dollars.

Those, and more, are the elements that swirl around a major federal public corruption trial in Columbia in which jury selection begins today. Opening arguments are expected Monday.

Expected to last up to three weeks or more, the trial is the climax of a multiyear FBI investigation that involved covert wiretaps of hundreds of phone calls placed by S.C. State University and city of Columbia officials.

Exactly who is heard speaking on those wiretaps has been the subject of considerable speculation. The jury, and the public, are all but sure to find out during the trial.

Two defendants – Greenville businessman Jonathan Pinson and his partner, Eric Robinson – face stiff prison sentences if convicted. An indictment in the case charges the two with using their political and personal connections and business expertise to carry out a host of while-collar crimes.

Those alleged crimes include money laundering through shell corporations, bribes, kickbacks, racketeering, extortion and the use of public money and bank loans for illegal purposes.

“Deception, influence-peddling and greed were the hallmarks of this enterprise,” according to a 69-page indictment charging the two men. The indictment made it clear that prosecutors believe Pinson was the mastermind behind the alleged schemes, saying he was “routinely at the heart of this criminal activity.”

Pinson is a former board chairman of S.C. State University, where the majority of alleged crimes alleged took place. Also mentioned in the indictment is the multimillion-dollar, public-private housing project, the Village at River’s Edge, that Pinson was developing in north Columbia.

According to the indictment, Pinson was paid public money by the Columbia Housing Authority to help build a portion of the River’s Edge project. The project was built with large infusions of federal and city taxpayer dollars.

However, “upon receiving these funds from the Columbia Housing Authority, Pinson illegally paid himself a portion of the funds, while often failing to pay contractors for the work performed,” the indictment said. The River’s Edge project now has a new owner.

Already, six other people have pleaded guilty in connection with the various schemes alleged in the indictment against Pinson and Robinson.

Those six are expected to testify against the defendants in the upcoming trial. The six are:

• 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 a 121-acre plot of land he owns near the university. Called Sportsman’s Retreat, it was pitched to the school as a possible site for a university conference center. Federal documents say Pinson was to get a $110,00 Porsche Cayenne in return for Pinson’s help in getting the university to buy Zahn’s land. Federal agents stepped in before the land was sold.
• Lancelot Wright, a businessman and former S.C. State board member. A former Pinson associate, Wright 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, according to prosecutors.
•  Robert “Tony” Williams of Florida. He pleaded guilty to various conspiracy charges involving Village at River’s Edge and other projects. Williams, along with Wright, gave a $5,000 check to an as-yet-unnamed former city of Columbia employee to help get the project necessary approvals, according to federal prosecutors.
• 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.

Last December, in federal court, a defense lawyer for Pinson said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and former city employee Tony Lawton were among the original targets of the FBI investigation that resulted in charges against Pinson and Robinson.

Attorney Jim Griffin of Columbia said prosecutors and the FBI improperly redirected their case toward Pinson. At the time, Griffin was trying to get Norton to throw out much of the evidence gathered about Pinson as illegal because it was gained through wiretaps aimed at Benjamin, Lawton and the city of Columbia.

Norton denied Griffin’s motion. Neither Benjamin nor Lawton has been charged. However, one or both may testify during the trial.

A government lawyer said during a pre-trial hearing Wednesday that Pinson faces at least 17 years in prison if found guilty.

Co-defendant Robinson faces a minimum of seven years, assistant U.S. Attorney J.D. Rowell told U.S. District Judge David Norton in a Wednesday afternoon hearing at the U.S. District Courthouse in Columbia.

Both defendants have refused pretrial plea bargain offers to plead guilty and have chosen to stand trial instead, Rowell said.

Those offers, made well in advance of the trial expected to start on Monday, would have exposed Pinson and Robinson to considerably less time in prison than if they are found guilty at trial.

The government has more than 100 exhibits as well as more than a dozen wiretaps that could be introduced into evidence. Dozens of witnesses are expected to be called by the defense and the prosecution.

Lawyers in the case will select 12 jurors and four alternates.

“The last thing you want to do is run out of jurors,” Norton told the lawyers.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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