Former S.C. State board chairman Jonathan Pinson and business colleague Eric Robinson, both 42, pleaded not guilty to all parts of a three-count federal indictment this afternoon and were released on bond.
Pinson’s bail was $25,000; Robinson’s was $15,000.
Indictments against both men in connection with an alleged kickback scheme involving the university had been unsealed this morning.
U.S. Marshals led them in shackles into a courtroom in Columbia a little after 2:30 p.m. today.
Pinson, of Simpsonville, and his lawyer. Jim Griffin, walked out of the courthouse together. With Pinson standing next to him, Griffin spoke to reporters:
“Jonathan Pinson has devoted time, energy and money to make S.C. State a better place. He’s never taken a dime. The charges are false. He is innocent. They are the fault of a flawed investigation.”
Robinson, of Greer, is represented by attorney Shaun Kent.
Earlier today in a Charleston courtroom, former S.C. State University police chief Michael Bartley pleaded guilty in federal court to participating in a kickback scheme that prosecutors say also involved Pinson.
Bartley waived his right to a grand jury indictment, pleaded guilty to his role in the alleged scheme and agreed to fully cooperate with prosecutors.
“South Carolina State University and its students are the victims of the crime charged in this information, not the target,” U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said after Bartley’s plea. “This investigation does not target South Carolina State University. Rather, this indictment focuses on two individuals who are alleged to have used their positions and relationships to prey on the University and line their pockets at the University’s expense.”
On the S.C. State campus today, students were concerned about the outcome of the indictments, but said the school itself remains separate.
“Our stomachs are in knots” over the secretive nature of the charges, said Akeem Brown, a 20-year-old student. “But our university is a university, not a circus.” He said academics are more important to him.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore told a judge that Pinson and Bartley conspired to push S.C. State officials into purchasing a property in Orangeburg called Sportsman’s Retreat, a recreational setting owned by a Florida businessman with ties to the two men. The price was to have been set by the businessman, he said.
The pitch was that the land could be used by the university for a conference center and other purposes, Moore said.
In return, the businessman agreed to give Pinson a new Porsche Cayenne worth more than $100,000, Moore said. Bartley’s share of the deal was to be an all-terrain vehicle and a cash payment of about $30,000, he said.
The indictment identifies the businessman only as “Person A” but in court, Moore named him as Richard Zahn, who is a friend of Bartley’s and a business associate of Pinson’s. Zahn could not immediately be reached for comment today.
Orangeburg County land records indicate Zahn owns the land in question.
Court documents state that the land sale conspiracy ran between 2010 and late 2011.
Federal investigators placed a wire tap on Pinson’s phone and intercepted several calls in the fall of 2011 that documented the scheme, Moore said. Authorities swooped in and put a stop to the deal before it could go forward, saving the university’s money, he said.
In the nine-page indictment, prosecutors contend Pinson “used his position as chairman of the board to illegally enrich himself and improperly obtain various items of value.”
Pinson and Robinson are accused of being involved in “extortion under color of official right” in dealings between 2009 and late 2011.
Among the allegations is that prosecutors contend Pinson received a “kickback” from Robinson for securing a contract to manage the 2011 S.C. State homecoming concert through WE Entertainment, where Robinson is a partner.
Pinson resigned as chairman in February, but continued to serve on the board. He stepped down from the board in December, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Bartley, 47, was one of eight high-level employees fired by the school in February of last year. He pleaded guilty in front of U.S. District Judge David Norton in Charleston this morning to a conspiracy charge.
Moore told Norton that Bartley cooperated with federal authorities from the moment he was approached by FBI agents.
“He is one of very few people I can say that about in this investigation,” he said.
The maximum penalty Bartley can receive is a fine of $250,000 and imprisonment for five years, plus a special assessment of $100. But in a plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to recommend a reduced sentence if he fully cooperates, testifies in court if needed, stays out of trouble and meets other conditions.
Norton released him on a $10,000 personal recognizance bond.
Bartley, wearing a dark blue suit and a grim expression, would not speak with reporters as he entered the courthouse and he said little during the hearing. Mainly, he just answered “yes” or “no” to Norton’s questions.
Today’s developments come almost a year after Reggie Lloyd, a lawyer hired by the university and former chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, said the university was involved in a criminal investigation, but he did not specify the nature of that investigation.
Walter Tobin, chairman of the university’s board, will hold an on-campus press conference at 5 p.m. today, to discuss today’s development.
Tobin and S.C. State board attorney Peter Wilborn attended the court hearing in Charleston, but they declined to comment until all of the facts are known.
In addition to Pinson, other board members who stepped down recently are Walter Johnson and Matthew Richardson, both of whom resigned in April, and Lancelot Wright, who resigned in May.
The school this year also has faced a budget shortfall of nearly $6 million, and enrollment fell short by nearly 500 students.
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The S.C. State University campus in Orangeburg. Grace Beahm/Staff×
Jonathan Pinson, former chairman of the South Carolina State Board of Trustees, talks with other trustees during a meeting in Charleston in June 2010. FILE/STAFF×