Ex-S.C. State trustee Jonathan Pinson guilty in corruption case
COLUMBIA - A former trustee at South Carolina State University was found guilty Thursday of more than two dozen charges in a federal corruption case, including racketeering.
Jonathan Pinson hung his head as the guilty verdict was read. He will be sentenced later. He left the federal courthouse in Columbia without speaking to reporters.
The same jury on Thursday also found Pinson's college friend and business partner Eric Robinson not guilty of all seven charges against him. Robinson faced fewer charges because authorities said he was not involved in all of Pinson's business deals, and he hugged his attorney in court Thursday.
Prosecutors said Pinson skimmed federal money going to a low-income housing project in Columbia and a diaper factory in Marion County, then filed false paperwork to get more money from the government. They said he used his influence to make money off a homecoming concert at South Carolina State University and tried to get the college to buy land from a Florida developer.
Jurors found Pinson not guilty of 16 counts, but Assistant U.S. Attorney J.D. Rowell pointed out that they found him guilty of at least one count in each of the schemes and of the racketeering charge that covered all of his conduct. Rowell said it is too early to say what kind of sentence prosecutors will ask for in a hearing in about three months.
The verdict ended a three-week trial that included more than 100 phone calls from Pinson taped by the government. Pinson is the seventh person who pleaded guilty or was convicted in the various schemes.
One person who has not been charged is Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, whose name was mentioned frequently as a business partner with Pinson. Rowell wouldn't say whether anyone else will face charges in the case. Benjamin has not spoken but promised to address the testimony against him later.
Prosecutors painted Pinson and Robinson as lowball schemers who dreamed of making millions but instead could only skim thousands off federal contracts and grants - just enough to keep their creditors at bay temporarily.
Defense attorneys said the men never made any money from the deals. They said their clients were picked on by investigators who first thought they had trapped a big fish like Benjamin, but turned all of their resources on others when the case against the mayor didn't pan out.
The defense said the federal government brought all its power to bear against two honest businessmen, carefully picking and choosing conversations out of those 15,000 calls that looked sinister out of context. They also said the government coerced the others who pleaded guilty into testifying through sweetheart deals that involved no jail time.
"We just punched the bully in the face, didn't we?" Robinson's lawyer Shaun Kent said outside the courthouse. Robinson, who wiped away tears again outside, referred questions back to his lawyer.
Prosecutors spent more than eight days making their case, calling dozens of witnesses, including Florida developer Richard Zahn, who pleaded guilty. He testified about flying Pinson and Benjamin to Florida for a party that included strippers. He also recalled offering Pinson a Porsche SUV in exchange for getting South Carolina State University to buy land from him.
Lawyers for Pinson and Robinson called no witnesses. Wrapping up their case in court, prosecutors played a phone call between the two defendants, where Pinson gave Robinson a lesson about how he operates.
"In business, you've got to grease that skid," Pinson said in the wiretapped call. "Or those (expletives) don't want to help you no more."