News Column

Jury begins considering futures of Pinson, Robinson

July 1, 2014

By John Monk Clif LeBlanc, The State (Columbia, S.C.)

July 01--COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A diverse eight-woman, four-man federal jury will enter its second day of deliberations Tuesday morning after weighing for about six hours on Monday the futures of two Greenville businessmen accused of public corruption.

Jonathan Pinson, 44, and Eric Robinson, 43, are facing racketeering, bribery, money laundering, kickbacks and a range of other federal charges on four schemes in three counties that prosecutors say involved diverting public money into their pockets.

Pinson is accused in connection with his role as chairman of the board of S.C. State University. Robinson, Pinson's former roommate at S.C. State, is not a public official. But Robinson is charged with plotting with Pinson.

Deliberations in the complex case began about 1:50 p.m. and ended just before 6 p.m. at the Matthew Perry federal courthouse on Richland Street.

Norton gave the case to the jury at 11:50 a.m. But jurors ate lunch before they begin deliberating on 45 counts of racketeering, bribery, kickbacks, money laundering and other corruption allegations.

Just a few minutes into deliberations, one juror told the judge she felt ill. Judge David Norton talked to the woman around 1:45 p.m. and allowed her to continue as part of the jury.

Earlier Monday, Norton provided more than an hour of legal instruction about complex federal law jurors must apply in the two-week trial that produced hours of tape-recorded conversations and reams of bank transactions.

"The next U.S. Attorney who does an indictment like that is going to jail," Norton joked Monday morning while the jury was out of Courtroom I.

Pinson and fellow Greenville businessman Eric Robinson, one-time S.C. State roommates, have been accused by prosecutors of operating four schemes during which they stole public money from their own communities.

The instructions to the jury were so long that after an hour and 15 minutes, Norton gave jurors a 15-minute break

"I'm tired," Norton said after explaining the law on "conspiracy," "racketeering," "bank fraud" and "wire fraud," all of which are part of the indictment in the corruption case.

Evidence against Pinson and Robinson is so voluminous and complex that the prosecution provided the jury with a disputed 75-page summary to serve as a roadmap to the government's case.

Jurors have to sort through about 200 government exhibits, including some five boxes of bank accounts, wire transfers and many other documents, in addition to two weeks of testimony and 118 mobile phone conversations intercepted by the FBI between Pinson, Robinson and six co-defendants who have pleaded guilty.

The case went to the jury after impassioned closing arguments Friday by lawyers on both sides.

Prosecutors characterized Pinson and Robinson as money-grubbers who took advantage of lower- to moderate-income people in Columbia and Marion County as well as students at the historically black college in Orangeburg. The defendants are accused of siphoning tens of thousands of public dollars into their own pockets. Pinson is charged with trying to get a luxury Porsche SUV in exchange for helping a Florida developer sell his fishing and hunting lodge in Orangeburg County to S.C. State. He and Robinson are accused of rigging a concert promotion for the university's 2011 homecoming concert.

Pinson is on trial for numerous charges, including using his public position for personal gain. Robinson, who is not a public official, faces similar but fewer related charges.

Defense lawyers argued that the government was diverted to Pinson by co-defendant Lance Wright so that Wright could save his own skin after FBI agents confronted Wright. Wright and Pinson were once on the S.C. State board, which Pinson chaired when the corruption investigation was launched.

Defense attorneys fought to keep the detailed summary of the evidence away from jurors. But the judge allowed the document to go into the jury room as a guide, not evidence in and of itself.

The recorded conversations used in court were from among 15,000 wire tapped calls intercepted by the FBI between July 21, 2011 and Nov. 28, 2011. "The tapes don't lie," lead prosecutor Nancy Wicker told the jury on Friday.

Robinson's attorney mocked the prosecution's case Friday, saying the co-defendant would have had to be the "great and powerful Oz" to pull off the schemes the government says Robinson committed.

Pinson and Robinson did not offer any witnesses to bolster their defenses. Their lawyers declared the government had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt and asked Norton to dismiss the entire indictment.

Norton -- after listening to extended legal arguments Thursday on a critical question of whether Pinson met the state law definition of a public official -- decided the fate of the two former roommates at S.C. State is up to the jury.

Prosecutors have alleged money-making schemes at Columbia'sVillage at River's Edge public-housing complex, two involving S.C. State and one in Marion County. A fifth plot that involved public officials in DeKalb County, Ga., was dismissed by Norton because of a lack of evidence. All the schemes involved accusations of misuse of public money.

The verdict is the climax of a high-profile trial that caught the attention of people in Columbia and around the state.

Since the trial started on June 16, it has opened a wide window into a cozy, behind-the-scenes world, where public officials and developers enjoy relationships that can offer profits for developers, and extra money or privileges for the officials.

Other evidence came from the testimony of five people who had pleaded guilty in the case and who took the stand to tell what they knew about Pinson's and Robinson's dealings. Those witnesses included a rogue cop, a crooked lawyer and an informant who allowed himself to be miked up on May 25, 2011 in hopes of getting others, including Pinson, to incriminate themselves. Wright was not called to testify and prosecutors have not explained why he is the only of the six to plead guilty not to take the stand.

The jury heard undisputed testimony, which came in the trial's first week, that Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin in December 2010 -- while in his first year as mayor -- took an unpublicized ride in Florida developer Richard Zahn's private jet in December, 2010, to Orlando.

Once in Orlando, Benjamin -- who has declined to comment during the trial -- went to a strip club. Afterwards, some of the officials on the trip wound up back at their hotel room with at least one of the young women they met at Rachel's strip club, according to testimony.

Zahn testified he paid the two women about $1,000 to come back to the hotel. Zahn testified that the trip cost him about $8,000.

Earlier this year, Zahn pleaded guilty to being part of a kickback scheme in which he hoped to sell the 121-acre Sportsman's Retreat to S. C. State and was bribing a former university police chief and Pinson to help pull the deal off. He testified he was courting Benjamin because he hoped to land a deal developing Gonzales Gardens and other projects in Columbia.

Trial testimony also illustrated the perils of corruption, and how a decision to go along with a crooked scheme instead of resigning one's post can ruin careers and lives.

That peril was shown in the testimony of Edward Givens, the former top legal counsel and chief of staff at S.C. State. Givens, who has pleaded guilty to a kickback scheme involving the homecoming concert, testified for more than a day during the trial.

In it, he said he went along with a scheme he said Pinson thought up because he -- Givens -- did not want to disagree with Pinson, his boss, as chairman of the university's board at the time. It was clear the scheme was dishonest, and could cost him his law license and a stint in prison.

Givens' law license has been suspended. He will be sentenced later, as will the other defendants who have pleaded guilty in hopes of getting probation rather than prison sentences.

Givens, a minister's son, was once a rising legal star who worked for the McNair Law Firm.

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(c)2014 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

Visit The State (Columbia, S.C.) at www.thestate.com

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Source: State (Columbia, SC)


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