Crime & Courts

One serious conviction against SC businessman, college trustee dropped, others not

Jonathan Pinson leaves the federal courthouse in Columbia in July 2014 with his wife, Pamela, and Margaret Fox, one of his attorneys, after a federal jury found him guilty on 29 counts, including racketeering, in his public corruption trial.
Jonathan Pinson leaves the federal courthouse in Columbia in July 2014 with his wife, Pamela, and Margaret Fox, one of his attorneys, after a federal jury found him guilty on 29 counts, including racketeering, in his public corruption trial. tdominick@thestate.com

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld most jury verdicts in the Jonathan Pinson public corruption case but overturned the most serious charge, racketeering.

The court’s 40-page opinion was filed Monday morning.

The high court sent Pinson’s remaining convictions back to federal court in South Carolina for resentencing. Pinson is a Greenville businessman who helped develop The Village at River’s Edge housing complex in Columbia. He also is a former chairman of the S.C. State University Board of Trustees.

Government prosecutors involved in Pinson’s conviction said later that Monday’s decision appears to prevent a retrial on the racketeering charges and, in any case, the government would not seek a retrial on that count. The government believes the remaining convictions are sufficient to support the judge’s sentence of five years in prison, said the lawyers, who are with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbia.

Jim Griffin, one of Pinson’s trial attorneys, said the overturning of the racketeering charge was “a big win for Jonathan and his family” because the racketeering charge, which alleged a criminal conspiracy between various crimes, was the most serious of all the counts Pinson was convicted of. “I’m glad the 4th Circuit found the government overreached in its prosecution of him.”

No date has been set for the resentencing hearing.

In May 2015, U.S. Judge David Norton sentenced Pinson to five years in prison for taking kickbacks involving S.C. State University and skimming federal money from development projects, including The Village at River’s Edge.

The government had sought 12 years for Pinson; defense attorneys Jim Griffin and Brian Steel asked for two. Norton also ordered Pinson to forfeit some $337,000 – the total amount of federal money the government asserted he stole as what prosecutors said was the ringleader of a half-dozen lawbreakers.

Pinson’s sentence ended a long legal odyssey of investigations and indictments in a wide-ranging public corruption investigation that began in 2011 and reached a high point in July 2014, when a federal jury found Pinson guilty on 29 of 45 felony counts.

Charges against Pinson included racketeering and plotting to accept a $90,000 Porsche Cayenne as a bribe for helping Florida developer Richard Zahn land a $3 million contract with S.C. State while Pinson was board chairman.

Evidence against Pinson included snippets of dozens of FBI-wiretapped conversations that were played to the jury during Pinson’s trial.

When sentencing Pinson, the judge made it clear that his reasons for a stiff sentence involved Pinson’s use of his public position as university board chairman to obtain bribes and make money criminally. The judge also cited the graphic, self-serving language the jury heard on the FBI tapes.

“I’m sure (Pinson) loved the university, but maybe he loved money more than he loved the university – that is certainly what came through on the tapes,” Norton said in open court just before pronouncing sentence.

Norton also scolded Pinson, telling him, “The tragedy of the whole thing is that you sold your reputation for so little money.”

Minutes before, during a three-hour hearing, Pinson had said he was sorry and asked for “a second chance to show who I really am.”

“The tapes were awful,” Pinson said. “I’m embarrassed. It hurt my heart that I had to sit there and listen to them.” At the time, in 2011, he said, he was “stressed, and the way I vented was through those phone calls.”

In the racketeering charge, goverment prosecutors were trying to prove that the various criminal acts Pinson had committed at Village at River’s Edge and S.C. State were part of an ongoing criminal enterprise. But the appeals court found there was no evidence strong enough to support that link, but it let the verdicts on the individual charges stand.

The government spent three years investigating and bringing the case – one of its most complex in recent years – to trial in Columbia.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin was one of the original partners in Village at Rivers Edge, but he sold his interest to Pinson before the investigation began.

His name did come up repeatedly during trial, though. Testimony included details about a trip on a private jet that Zahn, Pinson, Benjamin and others made to Florida and included the men bringing women who worked in a strip club back to their hotel. And Pinson was lobbying city officials for permission to redevelop Columbia’s Gonzales Gardens federal housing complex site.

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