Ex-S.C. State trustee out on bond in kickback probe
COLUMBIA — Three people have been indicted in a kickback scheme involving a former trustee at South Carolina State University who is accused of using his influence in exchange for favors and a Porsche, authorities said Thursday.
Jonathan N. Pinson, a Greenville businessman, faces two felony counts of interference with commerce by threat of violence. According to an indictment, an unnamed Florida businessman asked Pinson to help sell property called the “Sportsman’s Retreat” in Orangeburg County, where the university is located. Pinson agreed to “illegally use his influence and position” to arrange for the school to buy the property in exchange for a Porsche, prosecutors said.
Former university police chief Michael Bartley also agreed to help promote the sale of that property in exchange for about $30,000, according to the indictment. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy in Charleston on Thursday.
Authorities said they monitored Pinson’s phone calls in 2011 and learned of his deal with Bartley, who had also been set to get an all-terrain vehicle in the land deal, which never happened.
Prosecutors said Bartley confessed and agreed to help them. He is free on bond and will be sentenced later.
Prosecutors also said Pinson conspired with a Greenville businessman, Eric Robinson, to get kickbacks in exchange for using Robinson’s entertainment company to promote a 2011 homecoming concert at S.C. State.
During a brief court appearance in Columbia on Thursday, Pinson and Robinson pleaded not guilty and were released on bond. No future hearings have been set.
If convicted, each man faces up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said the investigation was ongoing and more indictments were expected.
Pinson joined the S.C. State board of trustees in 2005 and served as its chairman for several years until last February.
He decided then to resign the leadership post, but held on to his seat on the board before leaving altogether in December, citing professional and family obligations.
Pinson graduated from S.C. State in 1993 and serves as president of Professional Staffing Solutions, according to his trustee biography, which is no longer online. He also is a part owner in a Columbia restaurant and a Hilton Hotel complex in Columbia and has done business deals with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.
Allegations of illegal activity have swirled around the Orangeburg school for more than a year. In December 2011, then-President George Cooper hired Reggie Lloyd, a former U.S. attorney and state Law Enforcement Division chief, to do an internal investigation. But Cooper abruptly quit several months later, and the work was not completed.
Before his departure, Cooper announced that eight university administrators -- including his top lawyer and aide, the vice president for student affairs and Bartley -- had been fired for mismanagement. At the time, Lloyd said there were accusations of criminal misconduct surrounding the dismissals.
The months since have seen the resignations of multiple board members. Columbia attorney Matthew Richardson and retired Gen. Walter Johnson wrote in their departure letter that the board could not effectively govern and asked state leaders to install new members.
State lawmakers considered legislation to address the situation by replacing the entire board or reducing its size, but that effort collapsed.
The school’s finances have also been in turmoil. Last year, trustees said they’d implement hiring freezes to make up for an estimated shortfall of nearly $4 million, a gap some blamed on declining enrollment.
State auditors also have cited mismanagement and a lack of planning in construction delays at the university’s transportation research center. The Legislative Audit Council found no evidence of missing money but questioned spending and billing at the center named for U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, also noting that the school did not have a viable plan to raise more than $80 million needed to complete the center.
Bruce Smith contributed from Charleston. Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP