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Ex-SC State trustee’s corruption trial ending
Question of the Day
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The key to the public corruption case against a former South Carolina State University trustee consists of 118 taped phone conversations involving Jonathan Pinson out of the 15,000 phone calls federal agents monitored in their wide-ranging racketeering investigation.
Prosecutors played several of them for the jury Friday during closing statements of the two-week trial, including one in which Pinson brags he can secure all kinds of contracts to the university or the city of Columbia and get money or something else of value in return.
“This is my (expletive) city,” Pinson said on the tape.
The fate of Pinson and co-defendant and business partner Eric Robinson will soon be with a jury. The judge plans to read the charges to the 12 jurors Monday and have them begin deliberating. Pinson faces nearly 50 charges. Robinson faces far fewer charges because authorities said he was not involved in all of Pinson’s business deals.
Prosecutors painted the men 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 for a little while longer.
“He schemes all day long,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Wicker said of Pinson. “He goes from one scheme to another, throwing whatever against the wall to see what sticks.”
One of Pinson’s lawyers said investigators first thought they had trapped a big fish like Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who according to testimony did business with Pinson but faces no charges. When that didn’t pan out, he said, they brought all their power to bear against an honest businessman, carefully picking and choosing conversations out of those 15,000 calls that looked sinister out of context.
“Making money is not a crime,” said defense attorney Jim Griffin.
Benjamin said he will address the testimony after Pinson’s trial is over.
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. In exchange, that developer, Richard Zahn, promised Pinson a Porsche SUV, according to one of the wiretapped calls.
Prosecutors spent more than eight days making their case, calling dozens of witnesses, including Zahn, who testified about flying Pinson and Benjamin to Florida for a party that included strippers.
Lawyers for Pinson and Robinson called no witnesses. Robinson’s lawyer, Shaun Kent, said in his closing statement he didn’t have to because it was obvious the federal government was using “all their money, all their power, all their influence” to make a case but didn’t provide enough evidence.
Griffin compared the case against Pinson to a cake. He said the government provided a lot of flour with the profanity-filled, boastful wiretapped calls, but didn’t provide the other ingredients needed to find Pinson guilty.
“If it is not here, you can’t go back to the grocery store and get it,” Griffin said,
But Assistant U.S. Attorney J.D. Rowell said everything the jury needed to convict Robinson and Pinson was right there, laid out before them over two weeks. He played a phone call between the two defendants, where Pinson was giving Robinson a lesson about how he operates.
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