A deal to purchase a sprawling property in exchange for kickbacks to school officials was making its way to South Carolina State University’s board for approval, according to a letter by former lawyer Edwin Givens, which the university released today.
In the Oct. 31, 2011 letter to Richard Zahn, owner of the 121-acre Sportsman’s Retreat, Givens stated the university officially intended to purchase the property for $2.8 million contingent on the approval of the school’s Board of Trustees, the state Budget and Control Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Givens was one of eight high-level university employees that former president George Cooper fired in February 2012. He could not be reached for comment this afternoon.
Charleston attorney Peter Wilborn, who currently represents the university, said the proposed purchase of the Orangeburg County property never came to the university’s board for approval because it was quashed by law enforcement officials conducting a public corruption probe that involved the university.
School leaders, however, are “very unhappy about the letter,” Wilborn said. The school has policies and procedures in place for land purchases that he hopes would have prevented the purchase from going through if it had come to the board, he said. “But it went too far.”
Federal authorities have said more indictments are likely in the public corruption probe.
Zahn, head of Longwood, Fla.-based ZMG Construction, pleaded guilty earlier this month to conspiring to defraud the U.S. government. He is accused of conspiring on the land deal with former S.C. State Police Chief Michael Bartley and the university’s former board chairman, Jonathan Pinson. Bartley pleaded guilty in the case last month and is said to be cooperating with investigators, while Pinson has pleaded not guilty to all counts of the indictment against him.
Pinson and Bartley were allegedly tasked with convincing the school to buy the property, according to court documents. 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.
U.S. Attorney Mark Moore has said Pinson and Zahn also 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.
Nancy Wicker, chief of the U. S. Attorney’s Office criminal division, said at Zahn’s hearing last week that in October 2011, S.C. State board members gave conditional approval to the land purchase. But Zahn withdrew from the agreement after he was approached by the FBI, she said.
But in the letter released by the university today, it appears that Givens, and not the board, gave the conditional approval.
According to documents previously released by the university, Givens and the other seven terminated employees were let go for “conduct unbecoming of a state employee that substantially affects your fitness to perform assigned duties and that reflects unfavorable on the university, and your substantial failure to follow university rules, policies and procedures.”
Wilborn said Givens was let go “as soon as we became aware there were questions involving him.” Givens served as general counsel, Wilborn said, where “even the appearance of conflict is a big problem.” The university took immediate action, he said. “We acted appropriately and swiftly.”
Read more in upcoming editions of The Post and Courier. Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.