Witness speaks

Columbia Police Chief Tandy Carter speaks with the media Friday concerning mayor-elect Stephen Benjamin's wreck. The crash happened early Wednesday morning, hours after Benjamin's run-off election win to become the city's first black mayor.

COLUMBIA -- At least one person who witnessed a wreck involving the mayor-elect of South Carolina's capital city has told investigators that Steve Benjamin's lights were off when he collided with another driver in an early morning crash, the city's police chief said Friday.

"This matter is still under investigation," Chief Tandy Carter said at a news conference.

Benjamin was in a car crash early Wednesday morning as he drove to Columbia television stations for interviews on his victory. Driving east on one of the city's main thoroughfares at about 6 a.m., his Mercedes sport utility vehicle collided with a Toyota Tercel turning right just blocks from South Carolina's Statehouse.

The 40-year-old lawyer and lobbyist was unhurt, but the driver of the Toyota had to be cut out of her car and was taken to the hospital, authorities said. Citing privacy laws, officials at the hospital have refused to describe the condition of 61-year-old Deborah Rubens.

Carter said three people witnessed the crash but would not say how many of them told officers Benjamin had his headlights off. Investigators are examining the SUV's computer system, which Carter said might help them determine how fast the car was going or if its lights were on.

The crash happened hours after Benjamin's run-off election win to become the first black mayor of the state's capital city. Police and Highway Patrol investigators have said he had not been drinking, but Carter wouldn't comment Friday on speculation Benjamin might have been distracted, perhaps by a cell phone.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Benjamin said he was praying for the other driver and called on Carter to involve another law enforcement agency, to avoid any appearance of favoritism. But Carter said Friday that his department would retain control.

"We're not investigating Mr. Benjamin," he said. "We're investigating the accident."

Michael Wukela, a spokesman for Benjamin, said Friday that the mayor-elect was trying to focus on the job at hand but was praying for the other driver.

"Steve's already said, and nothing's changed, that he's not going to talk about any details of the accident until the police have completed their investigation," Wukela said.

Benjamin, who spent three years running the South Carolina Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole and unsuccessfully ran for attorney general in 2002, is set to be sworn in July 1.