Federal prosecutors haven’t accused Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin of any crimes, but they’ve brought up his name an awful lot during the corruption trial of Jonathan Pinson, Benjamin’s former business partner. (As Free Times went to press Tuesday, the jury was deliberating Pinson’s fate.)
And one major area of testimony concerns a trip to Florida that Benjamin and Pinson allegedly took in December 2010, after Benjamin became mayor.
Reports of the trip have observers questioning whether the mayor ran afoul of any state laws — even if the feds aren’t going after him.
According to media reports of the trial, at least three witnesses — including Florida developer Richard Zahn — testified that Zahn flew Benjamin and Pinson to Orlando, took them out to dinner, put them up in a hotel, ferried them around in a limo, took them to a strip club called Rachel’s, and paid two dancers $1,000 to return to the hotel with the two men. All told, Zahn testified, he laid out some $8,000 for the trip.
Another witness, the former police chief of South Carolina State University, testified that Pinson told him, “‘Mike, if anybody ever asks you if Mayor Benjamin went on the trip, say no.’”
Benjamin has declined to comment about any of the allegations until the trial is over.
Cathy Hazelwood, attorney for the State Ethics Commission, tells Free Times that Benjamin should have disclosed the trip to the public, as it clearly counts as a gift.
Quoting from state law, Hazelwood says public officials must report gifts “including transportation, lodging, food or entertainment … 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.”
“That’s just a slam dunk there,” she says. “He didn’t get invited because he’s a nice person. He got invited because he’s the mayor of Columbia.”
Gifts must also be reported if the giver “has or is seeking to obtain contractual or other business or financial relationship with the official’s or employee’s agency,” according to state law.
That would seem to apply to Zahn, who testified that he hoped to win a contract to raze and redevelop Gonzales Gardens, a public housing project in downtown Columbia.
Benjamin has reported few gifts during his time as mayor. In 2012, he reported gifts totaling $550, including a kente cloth from the mayor of Accra, Ghana, and an autographed baseball from the University of South Carolina’s athletics department. In 2011 he reported one gift, a PDA worth $125 that he then donated to a city tech program. For 2010, 2013 and 2014, the “gifts” section of Benjamin’s required Statement of Economic Interests form is blank.
Zahn has never been listed as a donor on any of Benjamin’s campaign reports, either.
The Municipal Association of South Carolina advises city officials to interpret ethics law broadly, disclosing “anything of value received as a result of their public office or position.”
John Crangle, director of the South Carolina chapter of ethics watchdog Common Cause, says it’s not just a question of disclosure, but of what looks right.
“There’s also the question of prudence in accepting gifts,” Crangle says. “Maybe it might be legal for an official to accept gifts, but it might not be prudent. It might be a conflict of interest. There’s the minimum standard, and then there’s sort of a higher ethical standard.”
The State Ethics Commission will look into the reports of Benjamin’s Florida trip and get in touch with him about his ethics reporting, Hazelwood says. He’ll then have an opportunity to amend his Statement of Economic Interests report.
But what about actual criminal penalties?
That depends, Crangle says.
“It’s illegal, of course, to take anything of value in return for official action,” Crangle says. “If there’s a quid pro quo demonstrated, there’s a clear violation of anti-bribery provisions of the criminal code.”
In this case, Zahn didn’t get the Gonzales Gardens contract, nor any other city contract.
Still, says Crangle, a trip like Benjamin’s “doesn’t pass the smell test.”
“If the mayor or other public official feels they have legitimate economic development business, they have a budget [to cover travel]. Nikki Haley does it all the time, doesn’t she?” he says, referring to the governor’s many trips to recruit businesses to South Carolina.
“To take freebies off someone who’s trying to get business deals with the city, that’s not prudent on Steve’s part.”
Ironically, Benjamin spent his 2010 election campaign pushing for a city ethics overhaul, even bringing Crangle and Common Cause on board to advise the city on developing new policies. What Council eventually adopted in 2012 applies largely to city employees rather than council members, however, as council members are subject to the state ethics act.
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