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.
The commission sent Benjamin a letter asking him to amend his public disclosure forms to report the trip.
Further reporting by The Stateturned 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.
King Lear in Finlay Park
October 16th-18th and 22nd-25th, the South Carolina Shakespeare Company presents William Shakespeare’s King Lear. All performances held at the Finlay Park Ampitheatre at 7:30 PM. For tickets and more information, click here or call 803-665-2000.
The Other Place at Trustus Theatre
Juliana Smithton is a successful neurologist whose life seems to be coming unhinged. A mystery unfolds as fact blurs with fiction, past collides with present and the elusive truth of Juliana’s mental health boils to the surface in The Other Place, running at Trustus Theatre October 17th through November 1st. There will be a talk-back following the matinee on October 19th. Tickets can be purchased here or by calling the box office at 803-254-9732.
3LAU on Sunday, October 26th and the Unofficial Skrillex Mothership Tour After-Party on the 27th. More information and tickets for both can be found here. VIP tables available.
Bluegrass, Bidding, and BBQ
Join The Palladium Society Thursday, October 23rd from 7-10 p.m. for its 11th annual silent auction, featuring music by The Mustache Brothers and catering by Bourbon and The Oak Table. Tickets are $30 at the door and include admission, drinks, and food. Get yours online now!
Four Miles, Twelve Doughnuts
Winston’s Wish aims to increase knowledge and understanding of children with autism, and you can help by participating in the 4.donut Race on October 25th. Start at Edventure Children’s Museum, run 2 miles to Krispy Kreme, eat 12 doughnuts, and run back! Registration is required and can be done here before October 23rd at 5 p.m.
SEARCH FREE TIMES
Cupcake now hiring a closing manager. Must be outgoing, customer service focused, able to work evenings and weekends. Apply in person. 1213 Lincoln Street, Columbia SC 29201. freshcupcakes.com
Local business is searching for new associates who are looking for a fun environment to earn great wages. Great position for college students/recent graduates. Must be well-mannered with excellent customer service skills/work ethic/ability to lift heavy items/must have valid Driver’s License. Call 803-376-4884 or email resume: email@example.com.
U.S. Security Associates
Now hiring immediately for armed and unarmed security officers. WE TRAIN YOU! Columbia & surrounding areas. ussecurityassociates.com