A federal judge sentenced Jonathan Pinson to four years in prison Thursday after a prosecutor called the former S.C. State trustees chairman a "puppet master" in a string of illegal schemes.
The sentence was a year less than Pinson’s original punishment, set in 2015. However, a federal appeals court later tossed out part of the case against Pinson and ordered him re-sentenced, setting up Thursday’s hearing.
Moments before U.S. District Court Judge David Norton sentenced Pinson, the 47-year-old Greenville businessman apologized for his actions, saying he was reformed.
Norton will "never find me doing anything unethical or illegal again," Pinson pledged to the judge, adding he has children in the eighth and 10th grades, and would like to be at home — not in prison — for them.
Turning to the four federal prosecutors — Dewayne Pearson, J.D. Rowell, Jane Taylor and Nancy Wicker — and to the lead investigators — SLED agent Richard Gregory and FBI agent Chris Garrett — Pinson apologized for forcing them to spend their time on his criminal actions.
Norton said he believed Pinson, praising his family, but he added, “Maybe you should have thought of your family rather than running around doing all this stuff."
During the 30-minute hearing, prosecutor Taylor urged Norton to sentence Pinson again to five years in prison, describing him as the “puppet master” in several complex illegal money-making schemes who abused his post as chairman of the board of S.C. State’s trustees.
"But for him, this — these things — never would have occurred," Taylor told the judge, adding Pinson used his position at S.C. State to enrich himself. "His focus was not on how the public could benefit but how Mr. Pinson could benefit. ... He loved money more than he loved S.C. State." .
Pinson’s lawyer, Jim Griffin, urged Norton to show mercy, noting none of the other participants in Pinson’s schemes received jail time. Instead, all received probation, Griffin said.
But prosecutors stressed the defendants who received probation had pleaded guilty, confessed and helped the government in its case. All along, Pinson insisted he was innocent, they said.
Judge Norton stressed a major reason for the prison sentence was that Pinson had abused a position of public trust at S.C. State, in effect stealing money from students and the government.
Thursday’s re-sentencing marks the end of a years-long legal saga that began around 2010. That was when the FBI heard stories from Lexington businessman Lance Wright about Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin’s ties to an alleged illegal deal with Pinson involving Columbia’s Village at River’s Edge public housing project.
No charges ever were brought against Benjamin.
However, FBI and SLED agents used Wright’s information to get a court-authorized wire tap of Pinson’s cell phone, SLED agent Gregory testified at Pinson’s 2014 trial.
For months, FBI agents and employees listened to hundreds of hours of Pinson’s profanity-laced conversations, gathering information that linked him to criminal activities that the FBI had no idea existed.
In one call, for example, Pinson was heard talking about a $90,000 Porsche Cayenne he hoped to get as part of a kickback scheme as chairman of the S.C. State University board. As part of that scheme, Pinson was to get the financially troubled university to buy 121 acres of land owned by Richard Zahn, a Florida developer and Pinson friend.
During Thursday's hearing, Norton cited those conversations as damning evidence of a man obsessed with getting money at others' expense.
Another Pinson scheme involved the siphoning off of $1 million of federal money that was intended to start a diaper factory in Marion County.
Largely because of the wiretaps, a federal grand jury indicted Pinson and six others for white-collar crimes, including the Village at River’s Edge project, where it was alleged Pinson appropriated federal money for his own use.
Testimony by Wright, who was interviewed at least 66 times by the FBI, largely was credited – or blamed – for Pinson’s indictment.
“Without Lance Wright’s cooperation, there would have been no case,” Wright’s lawyer, Sherri Lydon, wrote in court papers.
In July 2014, after a nearly three-week trial, a federal jury in Columbia found Pinson guilty of 29 of 45 felony counts, including racketeering. He did not testify during his trial.
In 2015, Norton sentenced Pinson to five years in prison. Prosecutors had hoped for 20.
However, in 2017, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Pinson’s racketeering conviction and sent his case back to Norton for re-sentencing.
"Four years is a significant amount of time," prosecutor Rowell said after Pinson’s re-sentencing Thursday.
"Anytime an elected official is going to federal prison for four years for criminal conduct, it's serious," he added. "It's a deterrent."
What about the other defendants?
What happened to the others involved in Jonathan Pinson’s schemes? All pleaded guilty and agreed to help the government as it prosecuted Pinson
▪ Michael Bartley, a former S.C. State University police chief, pleaded guilty to agreeing to accept a payoff of $30,000 and an all-terrain vehicle as part of a kickback scheme. He received three years’ probation.
▪ Robert “Tony” Williams, a businessman and investor in the Village at River’s Edge, was sentenced to three months in a halfway house and three years’ probation. He was ordered to pay $977,777 in restitution.
▪ Phillip Mims, an Air Force veteran and Lexington businessman involved in a Marion County diaper factory scheme, received three years’ probation. He was ordered to pay $993,777 in restitution.
▪ Lexington businessman Lance Wright was sentenced to 60 days in a half-way house and three years’ probation. He was ordered to pay $977,777 in restitution.
▪ Florida developer Richard Zahn received three years’ probation. He was ordered to pay $25,000 to the S.C. State University Scholarship Fund.
▪ Ed Givens, a former chief counsel at S.C. State University, pleaded guilty to misprision, or failing to tell FBI agents all he knew about Pinson’s activities when asked about them. Givens was a star witness at Pinson’s trial.