COLUMBIA - A former South Carolina State University trustee facing public corruption charges did not profit from any of the schemes in which prosecutors allege he was involved, his attorneys told jurors in opening statements Monday.
"Jonathan Pinson did not profit one dollar from any of them," Columbia attorney Jim Griffin told the jury. "The only just verdict in this case is a verdict of not guilty."
Pinson is facing dozens of charges, including racketeering and fraud. He is accused of trying to get the Orangeburg university to buy land from a Florida developer in exchange for a Porsche SUV for himself as a thank-you gift.
He is also accused of lying to law enforcement; paying himself money that should have gone to contractors on a government-funded project; and submitting false paperwork to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to get more money.
Pinson has pleaded not guilty, and Griffin said the allegations stem from a federal investigation into another man, Lance Wright, who served as a trustee with Pinson from 2008 until 2012, when both men resigned. Prosecutors said Wright, who ultimately pleaded guilty to bank fraud and conspiracy, used loans intended to fund certain projects to pay off other expenses and gave $5,000 to an employee of the City of Columbia, where the men were developing a 60-unit, public housing complex.
During that investigation, Griffin said, authorities switched focus onto his client
"The case went from investigating a crime to investigating a person, and that person was Jonathan Pinson," Griffin said.
In opening their case, federal prosecutors said Pinson was at the center of a wide-ranging conspiracy involving the land sale and four other major issues, including the promotion of a homecoming concert at S.C. State, a diaper plant in the PeeDee, the Columbia housing development and alleged kickbacks to commissioners in DeKalb County, Georgia.
"This is a case of greed, corruption and abuse of power," Assistant U.S. Attorney DeWayne Pearson told the jury, detailing Pinson and Robinson's "pattern of theft and fraud."
Pearson also named more than a half-dozen witnesses he said would testify against Pinson, detailing each person's knowledge of Pinson's deals, like splitting illegal profits from the homecoming concert, faking invoices at the diaper plant or skimming off other deals.
"These percentages that he skimmed off the top started small - 5, 7, 10 percent - and constantly grew," Pearson said.
Six people charged in the case have pleaded guilty and are expected to testify, including the developer from whom prosecutors say Pinson tried to get S.C. State to buy the tract of land.
Pinson's college roommate and business partner, Greenville businessman Eric Robinson, is also on trial. Robinson's attorney said Monday that prosecutors had promised probationary sentences to defendants willing to plead guilty and help further the government's conspiracy theory.
"We're going to give you a pass on that because you're helping with our kickback scheme," Shaun Kent told the jury.
Officials estimate the trial will take about three weeks.
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