Florida developer Richard Zahn pleaded guilty in federal court this morning to conspiring to sell property he owns to South Carolina State University in exchange for kickbacks to school officials.
A judge will sentence Zahn at a later date.
Federal prosecutors this week formally named Zahn in court papers tying him to the corruption case. They mentioned Zahn’s alleged involvement during a hearing last month, but he had been referred to in court documents only as “Person A.”
This week, prosecutors filed paperwork in U.S. District Court listing a pending charge of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government against Zahn. The 44-year-old developer pleaded guilty to that charge during an 11 a.m. hearing in Charleston.
The paperwork is listed as “information,” similar to how the case of former S.C. State Police Chief Michael Bartley was handled when he pleaded guilty in January to a conspiracy count in the alleged scheme.
Zahn is accused of conspiring on the land deal with Bartley and the university’s former board chairman, Jonathan Pinson. The two officials allegedly pitched the sale to other school officials in return for bribes, according to court documents.
Zahn’s attorney, Andy Savage, said his client had no idea of the “culture of corruption” that existed at SC. State University when he came to the state to do business.
Zahn soon learned that corruption was, “the cost of doing business” at S.C. State, Savage said.
He described Zahn as an honest businessman who succumbed to the pressure. Zahn regrets doing so and has been working with federal authorities for months to help them correct what happened, Savage said.
Zahn faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison for the charge to which he pleaded guilty. but prosecutors indicated he could get about three years probation instead if he continues to cooperate with authorities and satisfies other conditions.
The full extent of corruption at S.C. State will become clearer as the case progresses, Savage said. The corruption was pervasive and it “goes way beyond the borders of that campus,” the attorney said.
Prosecutors have said Zahn was looking to unload a 121-acre spread known as Sportsman’s Retreat that he owns along Wild Hearts Road in the Orangeburg County town of Cameron. It has been on the market for $3.2 million, and the site was pitched to school officials as a possible site for a conference center and a university retreat, authorities said.
In return for his help, 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.
Pinson has pleaded not guilty to all counts of the indictment.
Federal law enforcement officials have said more indictments were expected in the public corruption case involving South Carolina State University. But Beth Drake, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles, said this week she couldn’t answer questions on whether or when more people would be indicted, because she can’t discuss pending investigations.
Zahn is 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.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore has 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.
Robinson pleaded not guilty to all counts of the indictment.
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.