City Watch

Feds Should Indict Benjamin — Or He Should Sue Them

By Kevin Fisher
Wednesday, July 16, 2014

“Benjamin played an active role in getting bank loans with Pinson and instead of using the loans to pay for projects, Pinson and Benjamin used the money to ‘line their own pockets,’ Assistant U.S. Attorney DeWayne Pearson alleged in his opening remarks.” — The State, June 16

“Now that a verdict has been rendered, it needs to be made clear that I have done nothing illegal.” — Statement from Mayor Steve Benjamin following conviction of Jonathan Pinson on 29 counts of public corruption, July 3

Both of those things can’t be true, folks. Either Benjamin was involved with Pinson in lining his own pockets with money diverted from bank loans intended for the Village at River’s Edge, or he wasn’t. Indeed, theft of those funds is one of the specific crimes for which Pinson was convicted. Accordingly, the U.S. Attorney’s Office should back up what it said in open court and indict Benjamin for his role in the corruption, or he should sue the government for defamation and slander.

This is not about Benjamin’s personal behavior. While the trial showed him to be an embarrassment to himself, his family and the city, those matters are for his wife and daughters, along with voters, to pass judgment on. All can forgive and forget, or not, as they see fit. The same was true for Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford and countless others.

There are essentially no standards of personal conduct for politicians anymore — can you say T-Rav for U.S. Senate? But there are standards for fraud and corruption in government contracts, and those standards apply to both private citizens and politicians alike.

Or do they? To call the Pinson trial strange as it relates to Benjamin falls somewhere between understatement and satire. Federal prosecutors repeatedly brought up Benjamin’s name during the trial and, remember, flat out said he and Pinson used money intended for the Village at River’s Edge to “line their own pockets.”

Yet when it came to the theft of those funds, only Pinson was indicted. Only Pinson was convicted. And only Pinson is going to jail.

Meanwhile, the mayor stands firm in his arrogance — er, innocence. As he famously told former WIS-TV reporter Jody Barr when asked last year about his involvement in the case, “Grow up, Jody.”

That arrogance remains firmly in place in the aftermath of the trial, with the mayor taking the laughable position that the private jet and even-more-private dancers he enjoyed during a trip to Orlando was personal business. Well, it certainly was in one sense.

But strippers and such aside, when the mayor of a city accepts a trip from a developer seeking to do business with that city, it is not a personal business trip. Both the city and the mayor’s role in it are fully and obviously relevant to that discussion.

Benjamin should drop the charade, declare the trip on his ethics report and ask forgiveness for his incredibly poor judgment in accepting the frat party outing (no, not the poor judgment he showed in his unofficial capacity, but rather the poor judgment he showed in his official capacity). I know, it’s hard to keep up.

But it is not just Benjamin who must answer for his judgment. So too must U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles. The mysterious decision not to indict either Benjamin or former Columbia city employee Tony Lawton (who the feds say accepted a $5,000 bribe from Pinson related to a federal grant for the Village at River’s Edge) is now starker than ever in the wake of Pinson’s conviction.

Of course, I don’t know what else Nettles knows or what may be coming, and I trust the confidence many of us have in him as U.S attorney is well founded. But make no mistake: Nettles’ reputation remains very much on the line with his decision thus far to prosecute a private individual while letting a prominent politician and well-connected former city employee skate.

But if Benjamin is not indicted, he may well want to sue the feds for damaging his reputation and career while not charging him with anything. Of course, he may also want to look in the mirror and repeat that advice he gave Jody Barr.

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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