Three business partners, including a former South Carolina State University board member, pleaded guilty Wednesday to bank fraud and conspiracy charges in connection with shady deals that involved stolen public money, a kickback and other crimes.
Former university board member Lancelot Wright, 47, of Lexington, along with Columbia businessman Phillip Mims, 46, and Tampa, Fla., resident Robert Anthony Williams, 57, will be sentenced on the two charges at a later date.
The charge of conspiring to steal and convert public funds is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. On the fraud count, the men each face up to 30 years behind bars and a $1 million fine.
The case is being handled by the same federal prosecutors overseeing the ongoing investigation into corruption at S.C. State. Wright resigned his post at the Orangeburg school in May 2012, citing personal reasons.
The three men pleaded guilty in front of U.S. District Judge David Norton in downtown Charleston, but the charges were not directly connected to S.C. State but to business ventures in Columbia and Mullins.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore, however, said Wright has been cooperating in the prosecution of others, including another case currently assigned to Norton, who has been presiding over hearings in the S.C. State probe.
Moore would not say whether the case in question involves former S.C. State board Chairman Jonathan Pinson, who is a former business associate of Wright’s, according to multiple news reports.
In January, Pinson, 42, of Simpsonville was indicted on charges that he used his influence at the university to broker a land deal in Cameron in exchange for a $100,000 Porsche Cayenne. He also was accused of steering a contract to a business associate to promote the school’s 2011 homecoming concert. He has denied those allegations.
The charges lodged Wednesday stemmed from shady business deals involving the St. Andrews Medical Village in Columbia, the Village at River’s Edge housing development north of Columbia, and the Softee Supreme diaper plant in Mullins, according to federal prosecutors.
In September 2007, federal prosecutors said, Wright, Williams and Mims did business together through Strategies Development Group and obtained $3.3 million bank loan to build St. Andrews Medical Village. Instead of using the loan from First Saver’s Bank for the project, they used it for other purposes, causing “substantial losses” to the bank, the prosecutors said in a statement.
“Almost every one of the construction draws was misused,” Moore said.
Then in 2009, prosecutors said, Wright, Williams and others worked to relocate the diaper plant from Georgia to South Carolina by getting a $1 million grant from Marion County. Wright, Williams and Mims then schemed to steal $80,000 in grant money for their own use by submitting false invoices for payments to the company Supremes LLC, the officials said.
Also in 2009, Wright and Williams invested in the Village at River’s Edge and made a kickback to an unnamed municipal employee, officials said. Mims then got involved, the prosecutors said, by becoming a project manager and siphoning money from a federal construction grant for his own use.
Moore would not identify the employee who received the kickback but said he no longer works for the city of Columbia.
In addition to the trio, Pinson also served as an investor in the Village at Rivers Edge and Softee Supreme, according to multiple news reports. Rivers Edge also attracted investment money from Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, but he sold his interest days before he announced his 2010 candidacy for mayor.
The FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the State Law Enforcement Division investigated the case against Wright, Williams and Mills. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Nancy Wicker, Mark Moore, Jane Taylor and Dewayne Pearson are prosecuting it.
Some of the evidence against the trio was obtained through court-approved wiretaps, which have played a key role in the S.C. State corruption probe.
The investigation into the dealings of former S.C. State officials and their business associates has so far snared seven people, including three with direct ties to the historically black college.
In January, Pinson, was indicted on charges for his role in the Cameron land deal. He also was accused of steering a contract to a business associate Eric Robinson, 42, to promote the school’s 2011 homecoming concert.
Pinson and Robinson, of Greer, were both charged with attempting to affect interstate commerce by extortion and participating in an alleged kickback scheme in connection with the concert. They have pleaded not guilty to all counts of the indictment.
Michael Bartley, 48, the school’s former police chief, pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy for his role in the Cameron land deal, for which the Orangeburg resident would have received an ATV and about $30,000 in cash.
In February, Florida developer Richard Zahn pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to sell property he owns in Cameron to South Carolina State University in exchange for kickbacks to school officials.
The 44-year-old developer pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. Zahn is accused of conspiring on the land deal with Bartley and Pinson. The two officials allegedly pitched the sale to other school officials in return for bribes, according to court documents.
He has not yet been sentenced.
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 and Andrew Knapp at 937-5414.
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