Crime & Courts

EXCLUSIVE: TARGET A - How an informant helped bring down SC State’s chairman

Columbia developer Lance Wright (inset)
Columbia developer Lance Wright (inset)

The FBI once wired him up and put secret cameras in a Columbia nightclub office to gather evidence.

In the end, informant Lance Wright, a longtime Columbia-area developer and businessman, helped federal prosecutors win convictions and guilty pleas in the highly publicized case of racketeer Jonathan Pinson. The former board chairman of S.C. State University earlier his month was sentenced to prison for orchestrating four fraudulent wide-ranging business deals.

Wright’s pivotal role as an FBI informant who helped get evidence against Pinson and five others, some once highly respected African-American professionals in the Midlands, has made him an outcast in the circles in which he moves, according to his attorney, Sherri Lydon.

“He became anathema to the black community,” Lydon wrote in a 19-page memo to the judge now on file in Wright’s case that reveals far more about Wright and his role than has been known publicly.

Wright never walked into an FBI office and volunteered to be an informant. He found himself forced into the role.

In 2011, after being questioned by two FBI agents who showed up unannounced to ask him about possible criminal activity involving some of his business deals, Wright spoke freely and consulted with his attorney, according to records and sources familiar with the investigation.

Wright, 49, who lives in Lexington County, has long been a developer and owned or managed medical and health care-related businesses. Like Pinson, he sat on S.C. State’s board before federal agents came knocking on his door.

Wright learned that if he cooperated with the FBI, telling agents about crimes he knew about in addition to his own, he might earn only probation even though he still would have to plead guilty to at least some of the crimes he committed, according to records and multiple sources.

The agreement made him Target A: the man who talked first to the FBI and the one who helped implicate everyone else.

Tips and information

Wright and Lydon, Wright’s attorney, declined to comment for this story.

Wright and the others have pleaded guilty. Most are awaiting sentencing.

Everyone else testified against Pinson. Wright didn’t take the stand.

Still, Lydon’s memo on Wright was written to U.S. Judge David Norton to get her client a favorable sentence by convincing the judge that Wright’s contribution was crucial to the case.

“In some cases,” she wrote, “the defendant obtained direct evidence of guilt, such as audio tape admissions, and in other cases, he obtained information that provided investigative leads.”

And most of the key witnesses against Pinson had been developed as a result of Wright helping the FBI, she wrote.

Lydon said Wright’s aid to government efforts to convict Pinson and his co-defendants was so extraordinary that he deserves probation – not prison.

The government believes the same. In a 2013 formal plea agreement, prosecutors recommended Wright get three years’ probation because of the “timeliness and significance” of information he gave prosecutors in the Pinson case.

In the plea agreement he made with prosecutors, Wright agreed to plead guilty to bank fraud and mail fraud – two charges that together carry a maximum of 35 years in prison.

Earlier this month, Norton, who presided over Pinson’s trial last summer, sentenced Pinson to five years in prison for orchestrating four different fraud schemes, converting or trying to convert money from projects to his personal use.

That prison sentence was made possible by Wright, Lydon said.

“Without Lance Wright’s cooperation, there would have been no case,” Lydon wrote in the sentencing memo. His cooperation “has been nothing short of remarkable,” she wrote.

Lydon’s memo, and other records as well as interviews with people familiar with Wright’s case, reveal in greater detail than has been previously reported how Wright was crucial to the joint federal-state task force that gathered the evidence that led to the convictions of Pinson and the six others.

Wright also sent investigators down trails that did not pan out.

For example, Wright’s role as a Pinson friend and co-investor in a Midlands housing construction project helped agents to investigate whether Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and former city employee Tony Lawton were part of one of Pinson’s illegal schemes connected to that project, according to trial testimony and interviews with persons familiar with the case.

Benjamin was an early partner with Pinson in the Village at River’s Edge but sold his interest just before he ran for mayor and took office in 2010.

Neither Benjamin nor Lawton was ever charged. No evidence against either man has been produced. And neither was called on to testify.

On Friday, Benjamin spokesman Michael Wukela said of any Wright information regarding the mayor: “His allegation just isn’t true. Period.”

Dick Harpootlian, Lawton’s lawyer, said, “Allegations made about Tony Lawton by Lance Wright had no factual basis.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case, declined comment for this story.

On the opening day of last summer’s Pinson trial, federal prosecutor DeWayne Pearson told the jury that Pinson used his association with Benjamin to “squeeze money” out of people and agencies.

Although Benjamin’s name came up repeatedly during the government’s opening statements, and although Pearson told the jury that Benjamin and Pinson got bank loans “to line their own pockets,” Pearson was careful to avoid saying that the mayor committed any specific crime.

Later in the trial, an investigating government agent made the most specific public statement to date about what Wright may have said about Benjamin and Lawton.

State Law Enforcement Division agent Richard Gregory, who worked with the FBI to arrest Pinson, confirmed to the jury that the FBI set up secret cameras and wired up Wright so Wright could catch what Pinson said at a meeting between the two men. The meeting took place at an office in the Rust nightclub on Gervais Street in Columbia. One source said the FBI concealed its camera inside a television set at the club.

“When we have cooperating witnesses and we believe that there is criminal activity, it’s not unusual for us to put recorders on someone and send them to have a meeting or ask someone to come meet with them,” testified Gregory under cross-examination by Pinson attorney Jim Griffin. “That’s very common during criminal investigations.”

Griffin asked Gregory, “When you began this investigation, you were investigating a claim that Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Pinson instructed or requested Lance Wright to pay $5,000 or more to Tony Lawton as a kickback for Mr. Lawton’s efforts in assistance in helping the Village at River’s Edge obtain a $1.8 (million) grant for infrastructure from the city of Columbia, is that right?”

Gregory said that allegation “was a part of” the investigation but didn’t get any more specific.

Deeper in

Wright’s cooperation with the government began in August 2011, well before the first indictments in the case were revealed publicly in January 2013.

FBI agents, suspicious of some bank dealings Wright was involved in, questioned him. Then they asked him about the Village at River’s Edge housing project being built in north Columbia.

At the time, Wright was a business partner of Pinson’s in the Village at River’s Edge as well as an investor in a Marion County economic development project. The Marion project involved an effort to have a diaper plant move from Georgia to low-income Marion County. Both projects had received or were receiving large amounts of federal funds.

At first, investigating agents persuaded Wright to wear a wire to record conversations with Pinson.

Later, the agents learned enough from Wright to go before Judge Norton and seek a wiretap of Pinson’s cell phone.

The wiretaps proved crucial. From July through November 2012, FBI agents listened in on thousands of hours of Pinson’s cell phone calls. Some 118 excerpts from those wire taps were played at Pinson’s trial.

Although federal agents hoped to hear more on the wire taps about Lawton’s and Benjamin’s possible involvement in Pinson illegal schemes, they did not, according to records and sources familiar with the case.

Instead, agents heard Pinson discussing various other illegal activities, including soliciting a kickback for helping a Florida developer, Richard Zahn, sell land to S.C. State University.

According to Lydon’s memo to the judge, Wright has been working in the Columbia area since he was 14, getting a job as a dishwasher at the University of South Carolina Faculty House, a dining facility on the historic Horseshoe. At the Faculty House, Wright worked his way up, becoming kitchen manager, food and beverage manager and finally, executive chef.

A 1984 graduate of Keenan High School, Wright won a scholarship to USC but left after two years to open a restaurant, Las Vegas Delicatessen, in downtown Columbia, with a friend, Lydon wrote.

Wright is also a longtime member of West Columbia’s Brookland Baptist Church, where he once served on a foundation advising the church “on financial management and expansion strategies,” Lydon wrote.

Wright has had a long and varied business career but “was not able to overcome the recession in 2008, when many of his bank lines of credit were not renewed or forced to be paid down,” Lydon wrote.

Since 2011, Wright has been CEO of Ahava Hospice, which has 65 employees and provides hospice services through most of South Carolina, she wrote.

“The business has been struggling since Lance became the subject of much negative media attention,” Lydon wrote. “Lance has managed, however, to keep these 65 employees working.”

Wright should stay out of prison to keep his business going, but he is also a good husband to his wife of nearly 20 years, Adrienne, and a caring father to his two middle-school age sons, Lydon wrote.

“Lance never misses a sporting event or school program,” Lydon wrote.

In fact, Lydon wrote, Wright decided to cooperate with the government because doing what was right was the way to teach his sons a lesson.

“Lance made the decision because of his two boys,” Lydon wrote. “Lance places nothing ahead of his role as a father.”

However, Lydon made it clear that Wright’s role as an informant should be enough to get him probation and not prison.

Wright made himself available to agents “by phone at any time of the night or day, always responding immediately to queries about various aspects of the ever-growing investigation,” Lydon’s memo said.

“Based on the defendant’s cooperation, the government obtained seven convictions for numerous offenses including racketeering, bank fraud, wire fraud, public corruption, money laundering, theft of government property and obstruction,” the memo said.

PINSON GETS 5 YEARS

Former S.C. State University board chairman Jonathan Pinson was sentenced earlier this month by U.S. Judge David Norton 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 asked for two. Pinson also will have to forfeit some $337,000 – the amount of federal money the government asserted he stole as what prosecutors said was the ringleader of a half-dozen lawbreakers.

The sentence capped 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.

Norton made it clear that the stiff sentence was a result of Pinson’s use of his public position 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.


AWAITING SENTENCING

Most of Jonathan 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, a former S.C. State board member. He pleaded guilty to diverting proceeds from a bank loan to an illegal purpose and to illegally getting federal money from a Marion County development project. Prosecutors initially charged him with offering an unnamed city of Columbia official a bribe in connection with the Village at River’s Edge housing project but dropped that charge.

Robert “Tony” Williams of Florida, an investor in the Village at River’s Edge and other projects. He pleaded guilty to bank fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud.

Phillip Mims of Lexington. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to get sizable loans from banks for development 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, or concealment, of a felony and received probation because he agreed to testify against Pinson. Givens now has his law license back and is practicing law.

Eric Robinson, Pinson’s co-defendant at trial. While Pinson was found guilty of more than half of the charges he faced, Robinson was acquitted on all charges by the jury. He 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.

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