Former S.C. State University chairman found guilty of racketeering, other counts

By Ashley Barker
Published July 3, 2014

Jonathan Pinson, a former chairman of the South Carolina State University board of trustees and a Greenville businessman, was found guilty of 29 charges, including racketeering, Thursday afternoon in federal court.

He will be sentenced later, after the U.S. Probation Office has completed a pre-sentencing investigation and report.

The jury considered 45 counts against Pinson, including theft of federal funds, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, making false statements, extortion under color of law and state law bribery.

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The indictment said Pinson, 44, used his position as chairman to commit illegal acts. Evidence for four different schemes was presented to the jury, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina.

The first scheme involved a 2011 homecoming concert at S.C. State University. Prosecutors said Pinson steered the concert promotion contract to his close friend and former roommate Eric Robinson in exchange for a kickback.

Robinson was acquitted of the seven counts with which he was charged, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Evidence also suggested Pinson stole government funds earmarked for the installation of a diaper plant in Marion County, the release said. The government grant was meant to create jobs in rural Marion County, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in South Carolina, but prosecutors said Pinson and his associates pocketed the money instead. Lance Wright, Tony Williams and Phil Mims each pleaded guilty to charges related to fraud.

The U.S. attorney’s office said Pinson was convicted of theft of federal stimulus money from a $10 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant and that he used his position to make S.C. State officials buy land known as the Sportsman’s Retreat. The property is located in Orangeburg County about 10 miles from the university.

Richard Zahn, Pinson’s business partner from Florida, testified that he sold the property at 499 Wild Hearts Lane to the school and agreed to pay a kickback to Pinson in the form of a new Porsche Cayenne, which is an SUV valued at about $90,000. Zahn pleaded guilty to his role in the kickback arrangement and said he also worked with Michael Bartley, the university’s former police chief, on the scheme. Bartley also pleaded guilty last year.

Assistant U.S. attorneys called 20 witnesses during the 2 1/2-week trial against Pinson and introduced around 200 exhibits, the news release said. Nearly 120 secretly recorded telephone calls that were authorized by a court-ordered wiretap between July 21 and Nov. 20, 2011, also were played during the trial.

Agents from the FBI, State Law Enforcement Division, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services and the IRS investigated the case.

S.C. State University was put on probation in June by its accrediting agency. A spokeswoman for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges said S.C. State failed to comply with governing board and financial resources requirements.

University personnel did not return messages seeking a comment on Pinson’s conviction.

Reach staff writer Ashley Barker at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyNBarker on Twitter.

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