January 10, 2013

Former SC State trustee is indicted

A former trustee at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg was indicted in a federal kickback scheme, according to documents unsealed Thursday.

Court documents reviewed by The Associated Press show that Jonathan N. Pinson faces two felony counts of interference with commerce by threat of violence. Prosecutors say that Pinson, a Greenville businessman, used his position to solicit favors and money.

According to the indictment, an unnamed Florida businessman asked for Pinson's help selling some Orangeburg County property called the “Sportsman's Retreat.” Prosecutors say Pinson agreed to “illegally use his influence and position” to arrange for S.C. State to buy the property in exchange for the Florida businessman buying a Porsche for Pinson.

Another unnamed person who worked for the school as its chief of police agreed to help promote the sale of that property in exchange for about $30,000, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors also say Pinson conspired with a Greenville businessman, Eric Robinson, to solicit kickbacks in exchange for using Robinson's entertainment company to promote a 2011 homecoming concert at S.C. State.

Court documents did not list attorneys for Pinson or Robinson.

Federal prosecutors have set two court hearings Thursday in what they have called a public corruption investigation involving the school. One hearing is in Charleston, and the second is in Columbia.

Pinson joined the South Carolina State Board of Trustees in 2005 and served as its chairman for several years until last February, saying he wanted to devote more time to his business. He left the board altogether in December, citing professional and family obligations.

Pinson graduated from S.C. State in 1993 and serves as president of Professional Staffing Solutions, according to his trustee biography, which is no longer online. He also is a part owner in a Columbia restaurant and a Hilton Hotel complex in Columbia.

Allegations of illegal activity have swirled around the Orangeburg school for more than a year. In December 2011, then-President George Cooper hired Reggie Lloyd, a former U.S. attorney and state Law Enforcement Division chief, to do an internal investigation. But Cooper abruptly quit several months later, and the work was not completed.

Before his departure, Cooper announced that eight university administrators – including his top lawyer and aide, the vice president for student affairs and the campus police chief – had been fired for mismanagement. At the time, Lloyd pointed out that there were accusations of criminal misconduct surrounding the dismissals.

The months since have seen the resignations of multiple board members. In their departure letter, Columbia attorney Matthew Richardson and retired Gen. Walter Johnson wrote that the board could not effectively govern and asked state leaders to install new members.

State lawmakers considered legislation to address the situation by replacing the entire board or reducing its size, but that effort collapsed.

The school's finances have also been in turmoil. Last year, trustees said they'd implement hiring freezes to make up for an estimated shortfall of nearly $4 million, a gap some blamed on declining enrollment.

State auditors also have cited mismanagement and a lack of planning in construction delays at the university's transportation research center. The Legislative Audit Council found no evidence of missing money but questioned spending and billing at the center named for U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, also noting that the school did not have a viable plan to raise more than $80 million needed to complete the center.

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