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Zahn, last Pinson co-defendant, gets probation in public-corruption case

Zahn
Zahn

A federal judge sentenced Richard Zahn, the last defendant in the Jonathan Pinson public-corruption case, to three years of probation Monday.

“I’m just happy it’s over,” developer Zahn said as he walked from the courthouse in Charleston.

The sentence climaxed five years of FBI investigations involving S.C. State University, a Columbia private-public housing development and a Marion County diaper factory.

U.S. District Judge David Norton said he was going easy on Zahn for trying to bribe public officials. Zahn admitted wrongdoing when first confronted, cooperated extensively with federal prosecutors, lived an otherwise unblemished life and was known for charitable acts, Norton said.

As part of the sentence, Zahn, 47, will be required to fund a $25,000 scholarship at South Carolina State University.

Zahn earlier pleaded guilty to wire fraud and attempted bribery.

In court Monday, he apologized.

Of eight people charged in the public-corruption case, only one, Pinson, received a prison sentence. After his conviction in a 2014 trial on racketeering and bribery charges, Norton sentenced Pinson to five years. Pinson is out on bond while appealing his conviction.

Six others, including Zahn, pleaded guilty and received probation. Two of those also were sentenced to three months’ in a halfway house. The last defendant, Eric Robinson, was acquitted. Robinson later died of a heart attack.

A pre-sentence report recommended that an appropriate sentence for Zahn was in the range of 37 to 46 months in prison.

However, assistant U.S. attorney J. D. Rowell on Monday urged probation because of Zahn’s cooperation.

“Zahn freely admits his acts were inexcusable,” Andy Savage, his attorney, said in a written memo to Norton

But Zahn otherwise has lived the life of a model citizen — an Army veteran, a former reserve officer in the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Department, a successful businessman and father of five, Savage wrote.

Moreover, Zahn is providing “lodging and entrance fees to Disney World and other Orlando attractions for 26 adults and 11 children who are the victims and survivors of the Emanuel AME tragedy,” Savage wrote.

On June 17, nine African-Americans were shot and killed at the historic Charleston church by a gunman with white supremacist beliefs.

The publicity surrounding his crimes has caused Zahn to lose $20 million in business deals because people didn’t want to deal with a felon, Savage wrote. “His well-publicized fall from grace is a cautionary tale that cannot help but promote respect for the law.”

Zahn’s sentence is apparently the last act in a wide-ranging federal and state investigation into public corruption that began in 2010 and extended to S.C. State University, a federally financed development in Columbia called the Village at River’s Edge, and to a state- and federal-backed deal in Marion County designed to provide jobs.

Pinson, a Greenville businessman who was chairman of the S.C. State board of trustees, was the key player in all three areas. He was found guilty of numerous crimes, including racketeering and public corruption.

In Pinson’s trial in Columbia, Zahn gave crucial testimony, telling the jury how he paid about $8,000 to fly Pinson, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and another man to Orlando, put them up in a hotel and take them to a strip club.

Zahn also testified that he offered Pinson a $90,000 Porsche Boxer for his help in arranging a land sale. FBI wiretaps captured a cell-phone conversation between Pinson and Zahn discussing the bribe.

Zahn’s attempt to bribe Pinson didn’t have to take place, according to his attorney, Savage. Zahn, a successful chief executive of a multi-million-dollar real estate company who had “a comfortable nest egg,” was trying to choose between buying an expensive house in Charleston or a lodge in Orangeburg County, which became his choice.

He later tried to sell the lodge to S.C. State, bribing Pinson to facilitate the sale, according to Savage.

In his memo, Savage also revealed Zahn was a friend of former S.C. State police chief Michael Bartley, who introduced Zahn to Pinson.

Pinson and Zahn also discussed renovating the Gonzales Gardens housing project, a housing complex in Columbia.

“This partnership made good business sense to Zahn,” Savage wrote. “Pinson was well-known and, more importantly, was well-connected politically in Columbia, and Zahn had the development expertise and access to financial resources.”

To raise cash for the Gonzales Gardens deal, Zahn wanted to sell his Orangeburg lodge to S.C. State. That was when he enlisted the help of Pinson and Bartley, offering them bribes to facilitate the sale, which would have been for more than $1 million.

When FBI and SLED agents eavesdropping on Zahn’s and Pinson’s phone conversations heard discussion of the bribes, they swooped down and began confronting people about Pinson’s various schemes.

Benjamin was named in Pinson’s trial as a close associate of some players but was not charged with any crime. He and Pinson were the original investors in the Village at River’s Edge.

The mayor has said Pinson bought out him and his father from the River’s Edge project for $492,500 in 2009. That transaction occurred two days before Benjamin announced his candidacy for office, the mayor has said. Benjamin was re-elected to a second four-year term in November 2013.

The federal investigation into Pinson’s business dealings dates to 2010, according to court testimony and documents.

Key evidence at Pinson’s trial included 118 excerpts of FBI wiretaps of cell-phone conversations that Pinson had with his fellow defendants.

Those wiretaps, played to the jury, were full of graphic language and Pinson’s greed. At his sentencing, Judge Norton told Pinson the tragedy of this case was that the businessman had destroyed his reputation for so little money.

The other players were Columbia area businessman and Pinson associate Lance Wright, Columbia area businessman Robert “Tony” Williams, Lexington businessman Phil Mims, S.C. State University general counsel Ed Givens and Bartley.

Wright received three years’ probation; Bartley, three years’ probation and 100 hours of community service; Givens, six months’ probation; and Mims and Williams, three years’ probation and three months in a halfway house each,

Wright, a Lexington County businessman who also once served on S.C. State’s board, first laid out the schemes for federal agents.

THE OTHER DEFENDANTS

Jonathan Pinson, a Greenville businessman and former chairman of the board of trustees of S.C. State University, was found guilty by a federal jury of 29 felony counts, including racketeering. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Pinson is out on bond while appealing his conviction.

Prosecutors described Pinson as the “mastermind” behind bribery and fraud schemes surrounding a land deal and a homecoming music promotion at S.C. State University; the siphoning of some $1 million in federal money to a diaper plant in Marion County; and the theft of federal money from the Columbia public-private housing development called the Village at River’s Edge.

Lance Wright, a Lexington County businessman, was sentenced to three years’ probation. He also is partially responsible for $993,000 in restitution for money he stole.

Wright either knew about, participated in or led FBI agents to three far-flung criminal schemes, involving S.C. State, Marion County and Columbia’s Village at River’s Edge. He provided crucial help to the FBI and key evidence on Pinson.

Michael Bartley, a former S.C. State University police chief, was sentenced to three years’ probation and 100 hours of community service. He pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge for agreeing to accept a payoff of $30,000 and an all-terrain vehicle as part of a kickback scheme at the university that prosecutors said was orchestrated by Pinson.

During his sentencing hearing, Bartley apologized. U.S. District Judge David Norton told him he was amazed the ex-chief “had sold his integrity so cheaply.”

Robert “Tony” Williams, an investor in the Village at River’s Edge and other projects, was sentenced to three months in a halfway house and three years’ probation. He pleaded guilty to various conspiracy charges.

Williams, a successful Irmo businessman running a hospice company, began to participate in questionable schemes only after he met Wright, his attorney told the judge at sentencing.

A federal public defender also told the judge that Williams helped federal officials in the prosecution of former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to a federal offense connected to the 2011 inappropriate release of two illegal immigrants from the county jail. Neither his attorneys nor prosecutors would give details about Williams’ role in Metts’ conviction.

Phillip Mims, of Lexington, who also cooperated with the FBI, was sentenced to three months in a halfway house and three years’ probation. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to get sizable loans from banks for building projects in Marion County and the Columbia area, then diverting the money to illegal uses.

Mims, a U.S. Air Force veteran, was involved in business activities with Wright that became criminal, getting him in the trouble with the law, his attorney told the judge.

Ed Givens, a Columbia attorney and former S.C. State University general counsel, pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony and was sentenced to six months of probation. Givens admitted to participating in a homecoming scheme at S.C. State and became a crucial prosecution witness against Pinson. Givens lost and, then, regained his law license.

Eric Robinson, who stood trial with Pinson, was found not guilty. Robinson — Pinson’s longtime friend, college roommate and business partner — died in March after a heart attack at an Atlanta hotel.

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