Federal Judge David Norton on Wednesday sentenced former S.C. State University board chairman Jonathan Pinson to five years in prison for taking kickbacks and skimming federal money from development projects.
The government had sought 12 years for Pinson; defense attorneys Jim Griffin and Brian Steel asked for two. Pinson also will have 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.
The sentence ends 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, when a federal jury found Pinson guilty on 29 of 45 felony counts.
The charges included racketeering and plotting to accept a $90,000 Porsche Cayenne as a bribe for helping a developer land a $3 million contract with S.C. State while he was board chairman.
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Norton made it clear during sentencing Wednesday that major reasons for the stiff sentence involved 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 Pinson used in cellphone conversations that the FBI was listening to.
The tapes showed a different person than the tearful man Pinson was purporting to be Wednesday, Norton said.
“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 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, 45, 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.”
The 118 excerpts of phone calls were only 1 percent of some 15,000 phone calls the FBI intercepted, Pinson said, arguing the worst were played in court. “I never meant to cause harm to anyone.”
Norton said of Pinson’s plea for mercy, just before pronouncing sentence, “I’m sure he is remorseful. The question is, remorseful for what? Remorseful for being caught on the tapes? Remorseful for being caught with his hand out?”
Norton said evidence was clear that Pinson was a key player in four separate illegal schemes – one in Columbia, one in Marion County and two in Orangeburg, home to S.C. State.
“All the schemes dealt with taxpayers’ money,” Norton said.
After the hearing, Pinson dodged reporters waiting outside the federal courthouse by scurrying past them, shielded by a friend, Bernie Anthony. At the time, reporters were busy interviewing Pinson’s attorney, Jim Griffin. Griffin admitted later he fielded reporters’ questions so Pinson could get by the media.
Asking for leniency
The government spent three years investigating and bringing the case – one of its most complex in recent years – to trial in Columbia last year.
Among the investigators was a low-profile, joint FBI-SLED public corruption team task force that targets officials in South Carolina.
Pinson, a high-flying Greenville businessman known for multimillion-dollar development projects in his home city and in Columbia, was once a business partner of Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. One joint venture was a public-private housing development in Columbia called Village at River’s Edge. Benjamin left that deal before federal officials found evidence that Pinson was stealing federal money from that project, according to testimony.
Benjamin was not charged. His name came 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.
Norton’s sentence came after emotional pleas for leniency by Pinson, his wife Pam and eight relatives and friends, including Upstate philanthropist Hayne Hipp, who said Pinson was in the first class of Liberty Fellows – a two-year program that picks mid-career professionals, flies them to places such as China and Jordan and grooms them to be South Carolina’s future leaders.
Hipp and others spoke with eloquence about Pinson’s business talents and career, his contributions to the community, his work in mentoring young blacks and his involvement with his family, including his three school-age children.
“He’s what I would call a handshake deal guy,” Hipp told Norton. “I’ve found him to be understanding, to have integrity and to do what he says he will do.”
Pam Pinson, at times weeping, told the judge that when her husband first told her of the FBI’s charges, she was angry, upset and scared but that God told her to stay with him. “I prayed and I cried.”
She begged the judge not to send Pinson to prison because he is so involved with his son, 16, who is an athlete and top student.
“To not allow him to be there to guide his son on the path to manhood would be a tragedy,” she said, adding that Pinson was also very involved with his daughters’ lives, too. “I beg you to give him as much leniency as you can.”
Columbia City Council member Tameika Isaac Devine, a longtime friend of Pinson’s wife, was in the courtroom. Benjamin did not attend but wrote a letter of support for Pinson that was given to the judge along with others by defense lawyers.
Norton dismissed arguments by defense lawyer Griffin, who told the judge that Pinson had stolen much less than $337,000, that Pinson really wasn’t the ringleader in the four different schemes and that the various schemes didn’t have enough participants for anyone to be a ringleader.
The schemes involved stealing federal money for a Marion County diaper plant, from Columbia’s HUD-supported Village at River’s Edge housing development and using his university post to get bribes and kickbacks.
Griffin also told Norton that Pinson was a kind of victim, since Mayor Benjamin had backed out of the Village at River’s Edge housing development, leaving Pinson, who was not detail-oriented , in charge of the complex project.
Griffin also said Pinson was “targeted” by Florida developer Richard Zahn and offered a Porsche Cayenne to help Zahn land a development project in which S.C. State University would pay Zahn $3 million, Griffin said.
Moreover, the government’s “star witness” – Ed Givens, former university general counsel –committed crimes just as bad as Pinson’s and lied to the FBI but only got probation, Griffin said.
On the stand
Last summer, Givens was on the stand more than a day, telling the jury that Pinson had orchestrated various money-making plots involving the university.
FBI wiretaps caught the two men plotting and discussing various schemes to make millions and giggling like juveniles.
Norton rejected all those arguments. “Mr. Pinson got more of the money. He was certainly the main planner,” the judge told Griffin.
But Norton responded to Pinson’s character witnesses as well as arguments by Griffin that numerous other public officials – including S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell and former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell –had committed white collar crimes and gotten little or no time. Harrell got off with probation after being convicted of cheating on his expense accounts; McDonald got two years after being convicted of public corruption.
Federal prosecutor DeWayne Pearson told Norton that Pinson deserved no leniency and that FBI wiretaps showed a dark side of Pinson that merited severe punishment. “The true measure of a man is what he does when no one is watching,” Pearson said.
Moreover, Pearson said, Pinson still hasn’t accepted responsibility. “An individual who does not believe has has done anything wrong is not likely to refrain from that behavior.”
Testimony and evidence at the trial convinced the jury that he was engaged in money laundering, theft of federal funds, wire fraud, bribery and extortion.
During the trial, prosecutors labeled Pinson the “mastermind” racketeer of an operation that involved four money-making schemes. Each scheme had its own specific set of crimes, actors and evidence the jury had to sift through.
The others charged in the case cooperated with the government. They have received, or are expected to receive, light prison sentences or probation.
In February 2012, in the midst of the FBI investigation, S.C. State fired eight top-level staffers, including some later indicted in Pinson’s schemes. The federal indictments against Pinson were not made public until almost a year later.
Eric Robinson, who was tried with Pinson last summer but acquitted on all charges by the jury, was found dead in March in an Atlanta hotel room, apparently of natural causes. Robinson, 45, was a longtime Pinson friend, college roommate and business associate.
Early last year, Judge Norton warned Pinson that if he wanted a lighter sentence, he should cooperate with the government. But Pinson chose to go to trial. He did not testify.
Griffin said Pinson likely will appeal both last summer’s jury verdict and Wednesday’s sentence.
Most of Pinson’s co-defendants are awaiting sentencing in federal court:
Richard Zahn, a Florida developer. He pleaded guilty to trying to sell S.C. State 121 acres of land he owns near the university and plans to give Pinson a kickback. Called Sportsman’s Retreat, the land was pitched to the school as a possible site for a university conference center. Federal agents intervened and stopped the sale.
Michael Bartley, former S.C. State police chief. Bartley pleaded guilty to conspiracy for agreeing to accept a payoff of $30,000 and an all-terrain vehicle in exchange for being part of the land sale.
Lance Wright of Lexington and a former S.C. State board member. He pleaded guilty to various counts of conspiracy involving the development of the Village at River’s Edge project in Columbia. Wright also conspired to get sizable bank loans for building projects in Marion County and the Columbia area. The money was diverted to illegal uses.
Robert “Tony” Williams of Florida. He pleaded guilty to various conspiracy charges involving the Village at River’s Edge and other projects.
Phillip Mims of Lexington. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to get sizable loans from banks for building projects in Marion County and in the Columbia area and diverting the money to illegal uses, according to federal charges.
Ed Givens of Columbia last year was sentenced to six months’ probation. Givens, an active conspirator in two of Pinson’s schemes while he served as chief counsel for S.C. State, pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony and received a light sentence because he agreed to testify against Pinson. Givens now has his law license back and is practicing law.