The South Carolina Ethics Commission ruled Aug. 27 that Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin did not have to disclose to the public the 2010 trip in which developer Richard Zahn flew the mayor, now-convicted felon Jonathan Pinson and others to Orlando, where Zahn paid for their hotel, limo rides, dinner and a visit to a strip club, as well as paying two strippers to accompany the men back to their hotel.
The commission’s vote, which came at the end of a roughly 11-minute special meeting, was 7-0.
Following the ruling, Benjamin released a statement saying he was pleased with the result.
“The South Carolina Ethics Commission’s unanimous decision has concluded what I have always maintained: that I complied with the law,” Benjamin wrote. “I respect their decision and the rule of law. At the end of the day I’m proud of the fact that when faced with wild speculation and innuendo we stood up for the facts and, when it was over, the truth won out.”
Zahn testified earlier this summer at Pinson’s federal corruption trial that he had hoped to win a contract to raze and redevelop Gonzales Gardens, a public housing project in downtown Columbia, and to do other business with the city.
Public officials are required to disclose 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.”
But Ethics Commission Executive Director Herb Hayden said Aug. 27 it was his opinion that Benjamin was proper in not filing the 2010 Orlando trip on his 2011 statement of economic interest with the Ethics Commission. Hayden noted that Benjamin was invited to go on the trip by Pinson, not Zahn. The commission determined there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show Zahn provided the flight, dinner, etc. to Benjamin specifically because of his position as mayor of Columbia.
Emails from Dec. 2010 between Pinson and Zahn also seem to indicate Benjamin was an add-on to the Orlando trip. On Dec. 8, 2010, Zahn emailed Pinson and indicated he was arranging a jet to bring Pinson and crew to Florida.
“I will plan on having a limo take us around town Wednesday night, take in a nice dinner, and enjoy some Orlando entertainment,” Zahn wrote in the 2010 email.
Pinson responded to Zahn finalizing travel arrangements, adding “Steve Benjamin the Mayor of Columbia will be traveling with us he is also my business partner.”
In a letter to Hazelwood, Benjamin’s attorney, Greg Harris, insists Benjamin was a “last moment addition” to the trip to Orlando and that the mayor was there “on personal business, not city of Columbia business.”
“In this case, if the trip would have been offered, and Mr. Benjamin had been invited if he were not the mayor, then it is not disclosable,” Hayden said, explaining the ruling. “If the trip would be offered only if he was the mayor and because he was the mayor, then the trip would be disclosable.”
Hayden went on to say he did not find any evidence there was a contractual relationship between Zahn and the city at the time of the invitation, or that Zahn was seeking such a contractual relationship at the time of the invitation.
After the Orlando excursion, Zahn wrote to Benjamin: “Mayor Benjamin, It was truly an honor to meet you and discuss your vision for the city of Columbia. I find your vision and passion focused and on point.” Zahn also told the mayor he looked forward to participating in a development workshop with him.
But Hayden said the Dec. 17, 2010 email from Zahn to Benjamin did not factor in his opinion of the case.
‘There was nothing pending before the city when Mr. Benjamin was invited,” Hayden said. “It doesn’t matter what happened afterwards. … Anything that happened after the trip is irrelevant. You can’t interject something happens after the trip and say that that changes the reason that the public official was invited.”
Hayden was asked whether the commission had reviewed Zahn’s sworn testimony from the Pinson trial when considering the Benjamin ethics case. Hayden said the commission did not review that testimony.
“I don’t know that [Zahn’s testimony] was relevant,” Hayden said. “The question was whether or not Mr. Benjamin was invited because of his position as mayor.”
When pressed further, Hayden said he had not read Zahn’s testimony. He also said that, as far as the Ethics Commission is concerned, the Benjamin matter is closed.
In July, as Pinson’s trial wound down, Ethics Commission Attorney Cathy Hazelwood told Free Times that the case for Benjamin reporting the trip was a “slam dunk.”
The Ethics Commission subsequently changed its media policy, saying only Hayden could speak to the media.
Ethics Commission officials noted Aug. 27 that staff continues to work on the commission’s new media policy, and that it would likely come up at the September Commission meeting.
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