In a letter to the state Ethics Commission, an attorney for Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin claims the mayor twice consulted commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood about whether he should report a 2010 trip to Florida as a gift, and was told he didn’t need to.
Public officials must report gifts “if there is reason to believe the donor would not give the gift, gratuity, or favor but for the official’s or employee’s office or position,” state law says. They must also report gifts if the giver “has or is seeking to obtain contractual or other business or financial relationship with the official’s or employee’s agency.”
The mayor has said the trip was “personal business” and need not have been disclosed. The letter from his attorney also argues the trip should not count as a gift.
The public learned of the mayor’s trip during the recent trial of Jonathan Pinson, Benjamin’s longtime business partner, who was convicted July 3 on public corruption charges. At the trial, a Florida developer testified that in December of 2010, he flew Pinson, Benjamin and two other men to Orlando, where he put them up in a hotel, drove them around in a limo, took them to dinner and took them to a strip club. Two women from the club returned to the hotel with Pinson and Benjamin, for which the developer paid them around $1,000 each.
All told, the developer, Richard Zahn, spent $7,000 to $8,000 on the trip, he testified.
When news of the trip hit the streets, Free Times asked the Ethics Commission whether Benjamin should have reported the trip as a gift.
Yes, we were told.
“That’s just a slam dunk there,” the commission’s attorney said. “He didn’t get invited because he’s a nice person. He got invited because he’s the mayor of Columbia.”
The commission sent Benjamin a letter asking him to amend his public disclosure forms to report the trip.
Further reporting by The State turned up an email in which Zahn wrote to Benjamin after the trip saying it had been “an honor to meet you and discuss your vision for the city of Columbia,” and proposing a workshop to discuss “a possible strategy for the city of Columbia.” Zahn was pursuing several projects in the city.
But in a July 16 reply, Benjamin and his attorney say the trip didn’t have to do with Benjamin’s job as mayor.
Pinson and Benjamin have been friends and business partners for many years, Benjamin’s attorney writes.
He provides emails showing that when the developer invited Pinson and two other men to Florida, he didn’t extend the invite to Benjamin; it was Pinson who asked if Benjamin could come along.
The trip was the first time Zahn and Benjamin had met. “As he does with everyone, Benjamin discussed his vision for Columbia; however, his comments did not relate to specific projects, focusing primarily on Columbia’s growth and strength as an emerging Southern city,” the letter reads.
Benjamin’s attorney also writes that Benjamin contacted Hazelwood in 2011 to ask whether he should report the trip.
“Based on that conversation, he timely filed his 2011 disclosure without reporting the trip as a gift,” the letter reads. “Out of an abundance of caution, he revisited this issue with you in December of 2011. His inquiry again was whether a trip that did not involved city of Columbia business should be disclosed to the Commission. You appropriately inquired as to whether the trip involved the business or the city and/or whether he was invited because he was ‘the mayor.’ Because he was neither acting as the mayor nor conducting city business, you again advised him that it was not a matter subject to disclosure.”
Unfortunately, we can’t ask Hazelwood about her take on these conversations.
Last week, the chair of the commission moved to muzzle her, announcing a new policy under which only Director Herbert Hayden can speak with the media.
In the past, Hazelwood has spoken freely with the media and public, frequently explaining state ethics law.
Hayden wouldn’t discuss his reaction to the letter with Free Times. He said the commission would review it and decide what to do next.
If the commission decides the trip was a gift, says Benjamin’s attorney, the mayor will amend his reports.
Read the letter below.