Lawyer says mayor's trip to Florida was personal


COLUMBIA - A lawyer for Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin is preparing documents to show the mayor's trip to Florida in 2010 was a personal business trip.

But if the State Ethics Commission rules the trip was part of official government business, attorney Greg Harris told The State that he will file an amended disclosure report calling it a gift immediately.

Benjamin traveled to Florida with developer Richard Zahn and former South Carolina State University trustee Jonathan Pinson. The trip, which included a visit to a strip club, became public last month during Pinson's racketeering trial. Pinson was convicted of 29 counts and is awaiting sentencing.

During Pinson's trial, prosecutors introduced an email sent from Zahn to Pinson, but 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 does address Benjamin directly at the end of the note, 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, it was in the same enthusiastic way any mayor would discuss his city, Harris said.

There is no evidence that Benjamin talked about any specific Columbia project during the trip, Harris said.

Benjamin's name came up frequently during the trial of his friend and former business partner, but he has not been charged with anything. Harris said prosecutors likely pulled Benjamin into the case because they wanted to show Pinson used his friendships with public officials to help his illegal schemes. Benjamin has been criticized for not reporting the trip as a gift. John Crangle, director of citizens' group Common Cause, said politicians like Benjamin are more fair to voters when they err on the side of disclosure and likely save themselves from trouble and embarrassment,

"Any time a prominent public official tries to keep his activities secret, he is probably doomed to failure," Crangle said. "You need to act with an abundance of caution, and always err on the side of caution."