Jonathan Pinson used his position as chairman of South Carolina State University’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, according to federal prosecutors.
The allegations against the 43-year-old Greenville businessman are laid out in a dense, 52-count indictment unsealed Thursday in connection with an ongoing federal corruption probe at the Orangeburg college. The document seeks to tie Pinson and close friend Eric Robinson to a host of crimes, including mail and wire fraud, money laundering, extortion and bribery.
The two men were arrested in January, but the expanded indictment lays out the alleged schemes for which they’ve been charged in much greater detail. The document paints Pinson as a wheeling and dealing huckster who betrayed his alma mater by using his position on the S.C. State board to steer contracts to friends, shake down associates for kickbacks and gifts and promote his business interests elsewhere.
The 69-page indictment alleges that Pinson headed a criminal enterprise that included two other S.C. State officials, a trio of businessmen and four corporations in which Pinson was a principal. The enterprise operated in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida and had its hands in a housing complex, a diaper plant and other endeavors.
Along the way, Pinson and others allegedly doled out bribes, illegally pocketed federal grant money, misused loans and investments and generally gamed the system to enrich themselves, the indictment states.
“The enterprise committed numerous criminal offenses to increase its profits, and Pinson was routinely at the heart of this criminal activity,” the indictment reads.
Pinson faces 51 counts in the indictment; Robinson, 11. The two men are scheduled to be arraigned on the additional charges Nov. 19 in Columbia.
Pinson’s attorney, Jim Griffin, said his client denies any wrongdoing and intends to fight to prove his innocence. Griffin said some of the allegations in the indictment, including accusations regarding bribes paid to an unnamed city of Columbia employee and an unidentified Georgia elected official, are “baffling” and not rooted in fact.
“Jonathan absolutely did not engage in a scheme to bribe anyone,” he said.
Robinson’s lawyer, Shaun Kent, expressed similar sentiments and accused the government of using “cloak and dagger” tactics in the indictment to lob allegations without supporting evidence. “My client has maintained his innocence the entire time,” he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Wicker declined to respond to Griffin’s statements, discuss the details of the case or say if other indictments are imminent.
So far, seven people — three with direct ties to the state’s only public historically black university — have been charged in connection with the federal probe, which used wiretaps to help build a case against Pinson and his co-defendants. Five of those charged have already pleaded guilty in the case and are said to be cooperating with authorities.
The indictment released Thursday alleges that Pinson began operating the alleged criminal enterprise as early as 2006 and it was in full swing by the time he assumed the helm of the university’s board of trustees two years later.
Robinson, his close friend and business partner, is charged with offering a bribe and kickback to Pinson in return for Pinson steering a contract to manage the school’s 2011 homecoming concert to W.E. Entertainment, a company in which Robinson is a partner, the indictment states. Pinson didn’t reveal to the school the fee he stood to receive from the contract award or Robinson’s lack of experience in concert management, the indictment states.
The two men are also accused of lying to federal law enforcement officials who later inquired about their dealings surrounding the concert.
The indictment states Pinson tried to steer a university lighting contract to one business partner and create work on a wellness center for another. Federal investigators also recorded Pinson’s phone conversations with Robinson and others discussing the need for “kickbacks” or a “love offering” for their efforts in various deals, the indictment states.
In November 2011, Pinson also allegedly went through a university employee to have a school vendor set him and Robinson up in a $5,000 suite to watch the Atlanta Falcons play the New Orleans Saints in a football game, the indictment states. The bill for the Atlanta suite was split between the vendor and a S.C. State foundation, the document states.
Pinson also is charged with extortion in connection with an alleged scheme to get the school to buy a business partner’s property in Orangeburg County’s Cameron community called the Sportsman’s Retreat. In return for brokering the deal, he was to receive a $110,000 Porsche Cayenne, prosecutors said.
S.C. State President Thomas J. Elzey did not directly speak to the allegations when contacted Thursday but said the school will “fully cooperate if called upon” to assist in the federal investigation of Pinson.
“At this time we remain focused on our top priority, and that is to provide a quality education to our students,” he said in a written statement.
Prosecutors said the criminal enterprise extended far beyond S.C. State and involved other business ventures, both legal and illegal, for which the partners obtained funds through private loans, from investors, from government sources and through kickbacks and bribes. Pinson, Robinson and others are accused of illegally siphoning off grant money and other funds and then laundering the loot through various shell corporations, the indictment states.
Pinson is also accused of fraud related to a diaper plant located in Marion County and of misappropriating funds from a federal grant provided through the Columbia Housing Authority to the Village at River’s Edge, a mixed-use housing development located in Columbia.
Pinson and Robinson are also accused of wire fraud in connection with an alleged scheme to solicit kickbacks to be paid to an unnamed elected official in DeKalb County, Ga., and to provide a kickback paid to a city of Columbia employee, the indictment states.
Columbia officials said Thursday that they had no information on the matter and nothing to say. A DeKalb County spokesman did not respond to a call from The Post and Courier seeking comment.
The indictment was unsealed one day after another S.C. State board member and two business associates pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Charleston in connection with dubious dealings with the diaper plant, the Village at River’s Edge and St. Andrews Medical Village in Columbia.
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 bank fraud and conspiracy charges at a later date. Wright, a former business partner of Pinson, is among those said to be cooperating with authorities.
Griffon, Pinson’s attorney, said Wright and the others implicated Pinson to spare themselves from a prison sentence.
“The clear source of these charges is the testimony of three guys who were caught red-handed with defrauding a bank of almost $1 million,” he said. “In an effort to save themselves, they’ve come up with this tale of public corruption in exchange for probation on their sentences.”
In addition to ex-S.C. State officials Pinson and Wright, the probe snared Michael Bartley, 48, the school’s former police chief. He 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, the owner of that property, Florida developer Richard Zahn, pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to sell his land to S.C. State in exchange for kickbacks to Pinson and Bartley. He has not yet been sentenced.
Diane Knich contributed to this report.
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