COLUMBIA- State laws did not require Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin to have disclosed an all-expenses paid trip from a Florida developer, the State Ethics Commission ruled Wednesday.
Details of the trip were made public during the recent federal corruption trial of former South Carolina State University board chairman Jonathan Pinson. The former business partner of Benjamin is awaiting sentencing on 29 charges including racketeering.
The trip happened in 2010 as Benjamin and Pinson traveled to a meeting on a private jet belonging to developer Richard Zahn, had dinner and visited a strip club. Benjamin has been criticized for not reporting the trip as a gift. He has said he regretted the trip but that it was personal and didn't need to be reported to ethics officials.
Benjamin and his lawyer, Greg Harris, contended it was a "personal business trip," because at that time Zahn had not proposed doing specific business with the city of Columbia.
Zahn pleaded guilty as part of a corruption scheme with Pinson and testified against him. Benjamin was mentioned at trial but was never charged.
During Pinson's trial, prosecutors introduced an email sent from Zahn to Pinson, but that also copied in Benjamin. The email talks about meeting with the mayor's economic development team, the chief of the city's Housing Authority and the head of the city's grant program.
Zahn addressed Benjamin directly at the end, writing that it was "an honor to meet you and discuss your vision for the city of Columbia."
While Benjamin probably talked about Columbia and his vision as mayor during the trip, Harris said it would have been the same way any mayor would discuss his city.
In a statement released after the ruling, Benjamin thanks his family and friends for support and promised to keep trying to make Columbia a better place.
"The South Carolina Ethics Commission's unanimous decision has concluded what I have always maintained: that I complied with the law. I respect their decision and the rule of law," Benjamin wrote in the statement. "At the end of the day I'm proud of the fact that when faced with wild speculation and innuendo we stood up for the facts and, when it was over, the truth won out."
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