Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and a former city employee were among the targets in a public corruption probe that also involves South Carolina State University, a defense lawyer stated during a court proceeding Wednesday.
Jim Griffin, an attorney who represents the university's former board chairman Jonathan Pinson, said in federal court in Charleston that wiretaps used to investigate alleged financial improprieties at a low-income housing development in Columbia jumped the track and snared Pinson and others for activity at S.C. State.
Benjamin and former employee Tony Lawton have not been charged with any crimes. The State newspaper reported that Lawton was the former director of Columbia's Community Development Department.
Benjamin could not be immediately reached for comment late in the day Wednesday.
Pinson and Benjamin both were investors in The Village at River's Edge, a development in north Columbia. But Benjamin sold his interest days before he announced his 2010 candidacy for mayor.
The information about Benjamin came out during a hearing to consider three pending motions in the case against Pinson, 42, of Simpsonville, and his business associate Eric Robinson, 42, of Greer, who also has been charged in the case.
Griffin argued that a racketeering charge against Pinson should be dropped, and that wiretap evidence against him should be thrown out because federal investigators overstepped their bounds in gathering it through court-authorized wiretaps. He contended that investigators used false information to obtain permission for the wiretap. Griffin also said that agents listened in on some calls longer than allowed and intercepted calls that were protected by attorney-client privilege.
Robinson's attorney Shaun Kent argued that Robinson should be tried separately from Pinson. Pinson faces a 52-count indictment, Kent said. "But 30 counts, if not more, have nothing to do with Mr. Robinson."
U.S. District Judge David C. Norton denied all of the motions.
Prosecutors provided enough evidence to make the racketeering charge stand, Norton said. And the wiretap evidence was obtained appropriately because "it dealt with multiple parties and locations."
Assistant U.S. Attorney J.D. Rowell said the goal of the wiretaps was to "flush out public corruptions among individuals in high places."
Norton said that although he was denying Robinson's motion to be tried separately, he would charge the jury with considering evidence against Robinson separately from evidence against Pinson when the case went to trial.
Griffin said that the wiretap was approved after Lancelot Wright, 47, of Columbia, a former S.C. State board member and one of Pinson's business associates, told federal investigators that he and Pinson gave a $22,000 kickback to Lawton in exchange for assistance in obtaining a $1.8 million grant for River's Edge. "The problem with all that is it's not true," Griffin said.
Wright, who is from Lexington, pleaded guilty last month to bank fraud and conspiracy charges in connection with shady deals that involved stolen public money, a kickback and other crimes.
Pinson and Robinson were implicated earlier this year in connection with the ongoing federal corruption probe at the Orangeburg school. An expanded indictment unsealed last month added a host of additional charges, including mail and wire fraud, money laundering, extortion and bribery.
Prosecutors allege Pinson used his position as chairman of S.C. State's governing board to line his pockets with kickbacks and other ill-gotten rewards as he and business partners worked a series of shady deals from Florida to the Palmetto State.
The document accused Pinson of betraying his alma mater by using his position on the board to steer contracts to friends, shake down associates for kickbacks and gifts and promote his business interests elsewhere.
Five others, including Wright and Michael Bartley, 48, the school's former police chief, have already pleaded guilty in the case.
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.