Political leaders and some senior Columbia government officials – including Mayor Steve Benjamin – are likely to be called as witnesses in a federal public corruption trial that begins next week.
A list of potential witnesses in the trial of Greenville businessmen Jonathan Pinson and Eric Robinson includes:
Those eight are among 60-some potential witnesses named Thursday at the U.S. District courthouse in Columbia during jury selection for the trial that is expected to last three weeks.
Testimony is to begin Monday in Columbia against Pinson, 44, and Robinson, 43. They face a variety of charges including extortion, conspiracy, racketeering, bribery, making false statements to federal agents and theft.
If convicted, Pinson, a former chairman of the S.C. State University board, faces at least 17 years in prison. His business associate, Robinson, faces at least seven years.
Efforts to reach Benjamin on Thursday were unsuccessful. Columbia attorney Greg Harris, who said he is a friend of Benjamin, would not say if the mayor has been subpoenaed to testify. “I don’t know if he’s on the government’s (witness) list or the defense’s list,” Harris said.
Benjamin’s name was read aloud in open in court as a potential prosecution witness in the government’s case against Pinson, his longtime friend and former business associate.
The other names also were read aloud to determine whether any of the approximately 70 potential jurors might have a disqualifying conflict of interest.
A nine-woman, three-man jury was selected in the long-awaited trial.
Councilwoman Devine, who is out of town, did not respond Thursday to inquiries from The State newspaper.
Herbert, once an associate with Benjamin in a small law firm, said she had no comment when she was asked if she had received a subpoena. She was one of four finalists to be considered for city attorney last month but was not selected.
Baker said no one has told him he is a potential witness. “I wouldn’t know (Pinson) if I saw him.” Baker said he also does not know Robinson. Baker was one of Lawton’s supervisors.
Corbitt also declined to comment on his being called to testify.
Felicia Maloney, who worked with Lawton when he was director of the Office of Business Opportunities, said she has been subpoenaed but had been led to believe she would not be called to testify.
Dick Harpootlian, attorney for Lawton, said Lawton might be called as a defense witness. Lawton headed various city departments, at one point working on public funding for the Village at River’s Edge, until October 2011.
Diane Sumpter, a well-known Columbia businesswoman, said she had not received a subpoena. She said she, too, was under the impression she was unlikely to be called to the witness stand.
Sumpter’s company, DESA Inc., had a contract to oversee construction for the Columbia Housing Authority of its portion of the public-private Village at River’s Edge development. The early days of the housing project’s development are part of the case against Pinson.
Sumpter said she has been interviewed by the FBI and has talked to Pinson’s legal team.
During the trial, the government will try to prove that Pinson and Robinson used their associations with taxpayer-funded institutions – the Columbia Housing Authority, the city of Columbia and S.C. State University – in illegal ways to make big profits.
As such, the government is seeking to open a window into how large, publicly funded agencies like cities, universities and public housing authorities can be used by people to make money – sometimes in illicit ways.
The jury is expected to hear excerpts from more than 100 wiretaps – phone conversations between Pinson and others that were intercepted and secretly recorded by the FBI. Those excerpts were taken from more than 1,000 intercepted phone calls during a multi-year investigation.
A galaxy of law enforcement agents also are listed as witnesses, assistant U.S. Attorney J.D. Rowell said in court Thursday.
They include agents from SLED, the FBI, the IRS and the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Millions of dollars of HUD money went to the Columbia Housing Authority’s portion of the Village at River’s Edge project. That part of the project was later completed and has occupants.
Also likely to testify: six admitted criminals who have confessed their guilt on various charges connected to the ones in the 69-page, 47-count indictment that names Pinson and Robinson.
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.