A sprawling spread in a remote rural corner of Orangeburg County. A star-studded homecoming concert paid for out of students’ pockets. A $110,000 luxury car and promises of cash.
These elements are at the heart of a federal corruption investigation involving South Carolina State University.
Two former school officials already have been ensnared in the probe, and federal officials have indicated that more indictments are on the way.
The first publicly revealed details of the investigation focus on allegations of influence peddling that also involve a wealthy Florida construction magnate and an Upstate businessman looking to make a splash in the entertainment world.
CAMERON — In a quiet corner of rural Orangeburg County, amid cotton fields, sod farms and woods teeming with deer, lies a stately expanse of property that has landed three rather powerful men in a whole mess of trouble.
Known as Sportsman's Retreat, this 121-acre spread along Wild Hearts Road is owned by Florida construction mogul Richard Zahn, who's been looking for a way to sell the property for some time.
Zahn's efforts toward that end, federal prosecutors said, is what placed him in the middle of an illegal kickback scheme that has entangled two former high-ranking officials from South Carolina State University.
The historically black college is just 10 miles down the road from Zahn's retreat, which sports a lodge, several cabins, man-made ponds and an iron gate with the word “Dude” spelled in metal at its center. It's been on the market for a $3.2 million, and Zahn thought he had lined up the perfect buyer with S.C. State, authorities said.
The problem was, the deal revolved around the university's former board chairman, Jonathan Pinson, and police chief, Michael Bartley, pitching the sale to other school officials in return for bribes, according to federal indictments.
Pinson was to get a $110,000 Porsche Cayenne, while Bartley stood to receive a new all-terrain vehicle and $30,000 in cash, authorities said.
Bartley pleaded guilty this month to his role in the scheme, and Pinson is awaiting trial on corruption charges.
Zahn, 44, has not been indicted and remains a free man. He is referred to in indictments only as “Person A,” though prosecutors identified him in open court during Bartley's appearance.
Since news of the scandal broke, Zahn has not returned calls from The Post and Courier. His attorney, Andy Savage, said the developer is not at liberty to discuss the case.
“For the past 18 months, Richard Zahn has been assisting the Department of Justice in their investigation of misconduct by officials and others at S.C. State,” Savage said. “It is his intention to continue that assistance when called upon.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore has said the property was promoted to school officials as a possible site for a conference center and a university retreat. He said the deal was about a month away from closing when the feds moved in and quashed the sale.
Much about the alleged scheme still doesn't make sense. The university already owns a conference center and retreat that has fallen into deep disrepair at Camp Harry Daniels in the nearby Elloree area. And Walt Tobin, the latest chairman of the school's board of trustees, said he knew nothing of the proposed land deal until Bartley was hauled into federal court this month.
As for Zahn, Tobin said he's never met him. “I have no idea who he is,” he said.
Zahn may not be a household name in the Palmetto State, but he's a serious player in the Florida construction industry.
His Longwood, Fla.-based ZMG Construction has been involved in a host of multimillion-dollar projects from Texas to Pennsylvania, including a $1 billion redevelopment in Orlando called Creative Village and a $458 million urban renewal effort in Tampa.
Zahn, an Army veteran, got his start in management at ICI-Glidden Paints Co., moved on to work for a multifamily construction company, then formed his own corporation several years later, according to ZMG's website. To date, the company says Zahn has guided it through work on more than 900 projects valued at more than $1 billion.
His company bio describes Zahn as a father of four who enjoys scuba diving, flying his own plane and performing philanthropic work. He also races cars and, as a season-ticket holder to the Orlando Magic, had the honor of pushing the button that imploded the team's home arena last year.
Zahn also has a law enforcement background, according to the ZMG website. He is a graduate of the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy's reserve officer program and the U.S. Air Marshal Academy's “Flying while armed” program, the site states. On one racing website, he is described as a retired law enforcement officer.
Moore, the federal prosecutor, described Zahn as a friend of Bartley. Zahn served as a reserve officer at the Orangeburg County Sheriff's Office in 2006, when Bartley worked there as a deputy, state records show. Bartley was one of Zahn's training instructors at the sheriff's office, the records state.
Zahn and Pinson also had a relationship, Moore has said. He said the two men were involved in unspecified business ventures in Columbia and Atlanta that also included Greer businessman Eric Robinson, who has been indicted with Pinson in another alleged kickback scheme.
Bartley's lawyer, Glenn Walters of Columbia, declined comment on his client's relationship with Zahn, and would not answer questions about the case in general. Pinson's lawyer, Jim Griffin of Columbia, did not return a call for comment.
A unique spot
Published reports indicate that Zahn and his companies began buying up the Sportman's Retreat land in 2006, while county records show a number of purchases starting in 2007. A marketing package prepared for the property states that its owners pumped $5.8 million into its development.
The Orangeburg Times and Democrat reported in 2006 that Zahn had purchased the land from a family member and planned to retire in the area, calling the spot “very personal and unique.” He told the newspaper that several notable people had hunted and fished on the property, including NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, country singers and sports personalities.
The property now boasts an 8,000-square-foot lodge, guest houses, two stocked ponds, a horse barn and riding trails. It remains on the market, though a video offering a virtual tour of the property was pulled down from YouTube after the scandal broke.
It's a quiet and serene spot, a place where deer dart from the woods at a moment's notice and the chirping of birds was the only sound on a recent morning.
Willie Ulmer's family has lived and farmed on the land next to Sportman's Retreat for more than 100 years. When he was a kid, the neighbors grew corn, oats and other crops on the land. Later, it became an equestrian center/dude ranch where rich folks could go hunting and ride horses.
He recalled how guests would pick off deer from their rocking chairs on the lodge's second-floor balcony, then send the hired help out to fetch the carcasses.
'They keep it neat'
Plans have been floated at various times to bring more development to the site. At one point, there was talk of building a couple of dozen homes on the land, Ulmer said. And late last year, plans surfaced to build 270 senior housing units on the land, but nothing came of it, because the roads and septic systems couldn't support that kind of density, he said.
For the most part, the retreat has been rather quiet in recent years. Ulmer described Zahn as a nice enough fellow who has guests come to stay for a few days on occasion. But more often it's empty, Ulmer said.
“They haven't really bothered us,” he said. “They keep it nice and neat, and nobody's been over there very much.”
Between 2010 and late 2011, Zahn enlisted the aid of Pinson and Bartley to unload Sportman's Retreat on S.C. State and its 1890 Research and Extension Program, according to court documents. Zahn was to set a price to his liking, then the pair would push the deal through, prosecutors said.
What they didn't know was that the feds had placed a wiretap on Pinson's cellphone after receiving a tip implicating him in illicit activities, prosecutors said.
On at least eight occasions in the fall of 2011, investigators recorded calls between Pinson and Zahn and Pinson and Bartley discussing aspects of the deal, court papers state.
In an Oct. 7, 2011, call, Zahn allegedly agreed to provide Pinson with a new Porsche Cayenne as a “thank you” if the deal went through, court papers state. Ten days later, Zahn allegedly told Pinson he would “have a Cayenne in his backyard as soon as SCSU purchased the Sportsman's Retreat,” the documents state.
Investigators recorded Bartley talking to Pinson about the “kickbacks” he would receive for his help in lining up the purchase, authorities said. He told Pinson to “let him know what he could do to move things along,” and he took various people to visit the property to explain the benefits of the university buying the site, according to documents and statements by prosecutors.
Pinson's attorney has insisted his client is innocent and that the federal investigation was flawed. Bartley pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge before an indictment was issued, and prosecutors have said he has fully cooperated with investigators.
Tobin, who has been on the board of trustees since 2008, said he still doesn't understand how the deal came so close to being consummated without a formal proposal going before the board.
“I never had any idea of this. I didn't even know it existed,” he said. “If the deal was going through, then it was going through without board approval because I didn't know anything about it.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.