In a case that has riveted onlookers in Columbia because of its close connection to Mayor Steve Benjamin, Jonathan Pinson — former board chair of South Carolina State University and business partner of Benjamin’s — was found guilty July 3 on 29 charges of public corruption.
Pinson was accused of using his official position at S.C. State to commit illegal acts; he was charged with 45 counts including theft of public funds, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, making false statements and more. Eric Robinson, a co-defendant facing seven charges in the case, was cleared on all counts.
Benjamin — whose name came up frequently during the trial, including in testimony that the mayor had partied with strippers at an Orlando hotel — had declined to comment while court proceedings were ongoing. After the verdict, the mayor released a statement.
“We have the Pinson family in our thoughts and prayers,” Benjamin said in the statement, adding that, “Now that a verdict has been rendered, it needs to be made clear that I have done nothing illegal.”
Though Benjamin has not been charged with any wrongdoing, prosecutors said during the trial that he was involved in “questionable moneymaking schemes” and had worked alongside Pinson to “line their own pockets,” The State reported.
Pinson and Benjamin were partners in the Village at Rivers Edge housing development, a public-private partnership that started in the mid-2000s. The private portion of the development went into foreclosure in 2012; some of the charges against Pinson were related to theft of federal stimulus funds intended for that project.
Free Times has reported previously that Benjamin sold his share of the Village at Rivers Edge before he became mayor; Benjamin reiterated that point in his statement.
“My ownership interest in the Village at Rivers Edge terminated in August of 2009 and, after that date, I no longer maintained any role in the management of the project,” Benjamin’s statement reads. “Furthermore, after my election as Mayor in April of 2010, I conflicted myself out of all decisions directly or indirectly related to the project.”
In addition to theft of federal funds intended for the Village at Rivers Edge, Pinson was charged with: the theft of government funds earmarked for an economic development plan to install a diaper plant in Marion County; an effort to direct a concert promotion contract to Robinson in exchange for a kickback; and a scheme in which Pinson influenced S.C. State officials to purchase land and was promised a Porsche Cayenne SUV from a developer as a kickback.
No date has been set for Pinson’s sentencing, and he did not comment after the verdict was announced.
On the most titillating Benjamin-related revelation that came out of the trial — testimony that the mayor partied with strippers during a December 2010 trip paid for by developer Richard Zahn — Benjamin’s statement is circumspect.
“I regret being present for certain aspects of the previously referenced trip,” he says. “I should have used better judgment.”
Another issue that arose in response to Pinson’s trial was whether Benjamin should have reported the Orlando business trip to the State Ethics Commission. Ethics Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood told Free Times in a July 2 story that the case for a reporting the trip was “a slam dunk.”
“He didn’t get invited because he’s a nice person,” Hazelwood said. “He got invited because he’s the mayor of Columbia.”
Benjamin, however, maintains that the trip is not one that needs to be reported.
“We have met with the Ethics Commission and are confident that after a thorough review of all of the facts, they will determine that it was a personal business trip and as such, not a matter to be reported.”
The Ethics Commission sent a letter to Benjamin about the matter on July 3; he has 10 days to respond.
As Free Times went to press, Hazelwood had not yet received the mayor’s reply.
This story is an expanded and updated version of previous stories that have been published at free-times.com.
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