WIS Investigation: SC State land deal near closing when feds filed charges

Former Chairman of SC State Board of Trustees Jonathon Pinson
Former Chairman of SC State Board of Trustees Jonathon Pinson

ORANGEBURG, SC (WIS) - WIS has taken a closer look at a land deal that earned the South Carolina State University chairman and police chief federal corruption charges.   

Federal prosecutors charged board chairman Jonathon Pinson and chief Michael Bartley with conspiracy. The feds say the pair was working for kickbacks on a $3 million land deal.

The FBI says had they not caught the chair and chief plotting the scheme on wire taps, the deal would have closed this month and taxpayers would have owned a $3.2 million retreat.

It's a 120-acre stretch known as the Sportsman's Retreat that sits just 10 miles from South Carolina State University, and has been for sale for a while.

Orangeburg County property records show Florida construction mogul Richard Zahn owns it. The FBI says he nearly had it sold until the feds swooped in last month and shut it down.

"It arguably would have happened in a month or so before we intervened," said Assistant US Attorney Mark Moore.

Moore is leading the prosecution against Pinson and Bartley.

The FBI wire-tapped Pinson's cell phone in late 2011 and spent four months listening in.  Prosecutors say they heard Pinson and Zahn plotting a scheme for SC State to purchase Zahn's property for around $3 million.

In the deal, according to the feds, Pinson would get a $110,000 Porsche Cayenne kickback once the university cut the check to Zahn.

Moore said the wire taps show Bartley got in on the deal, too. His kickback, according to the feds, was $30,000 in cash and a brand new ATV.

Bartley folded as soon as the FBI confronted him with the evidence.

"Mr. Bartley cooperated from the get-go," said Moore. "When the FBI interviewed him, Mr. Bartley admitted to his conduct before he even retained a lawyer."

Pinson, prosecutors say, used his "influence" and "position" to force the university into the deal. Pinson's selling point was that SC State could use the 8,000 square foot retreat as a conference center.

The university already has a center at nearby Camp Daniel, which is rotting away because the university can't afford to keep it up.

Bartley, on the wire taps, tried his best to make sure SC State cut the check.

"Mr. Bartley had been out to the property before, was willing to take people out and show them the property and explain to them the benefits of the university -- if the university purchased the building," said Moore.

The feds say Pinson, while serving as board chair, even took a flight to Florida on Richard Zahn's private jet to discuss the deal.  Investigators say they have evidence from Pinson's own mouth.

But Pinson's attorney says the FBI screwed up.

"These charges brought against him are false," says Pinson's attorney Jim Griffin. "He is innocent and they're the result of a flawed investigation and we look forward to exposing those flaws at the appropriate time in court."

Bartley pleaded guilty and faces up to 5 years in prison at his sentencing.

Pinson is free on a $25,000 bond. If convicted, he faces up to 25 years and a $250,000 fine.

Those officials made up most of former President George Cooper's administration.

But the FBI says contracts for SC State's homecoming concert in 2011 show Pinson shared in a $60,000 kickback scheme. And every cent came right out of students' pockets.

It's the biggest event SC State holds all year. The contracts show SC State's administration spent more than $350,000 on it:

  • $80,000 on singer Charlie Wilson
  • $70,000 on rapper Young Jeezy
  • $40,000 for Crisette Michelle, Ace Hood, and the rapper known as Future

The contracts show SC State paid a Georgia firm, WE Entertainment $60,000 to handle bookings and the set up for the concert.

Student Activities President Donovan McDaniel said he was suspicious from the start.

"I used to blame myself for all of this because I was the president," said McDaniel. "And I used to just tell myself like, 'If I asked another question would this have happened? If I argued a little more, would that have come out?' It was like a bad hand that was dealt to us."

McDaniel was in charge of how student fees were spent.

He said in 2010 the university tried to force students to pay WE Entertainment to handle the homecoming concert booking and set up. McDaniel and his fellow students fought the administration and won.

"We kept our same motive, our vision, but unfortunately others didn't," said McDaniel. "But we kept it moving from there. We took the orders that we received to have the concert and we tried to do it to the best of our ability."

The FBI thinks the administration forced WE Entertainment into the mix because Pinson was working behind the scenes to get his friend's entertainment firm under contract.

According to Pinson's indictment, the feds' wire tap recorded him working out a kickback if WE Entertainment got paid.

When WIS New's 10's Jody Barr tried to talk to WE Entertainment founder and Pinson's co-defendant Eric Robinson, he told Barr he would have to talk to his attorney.

The feds charged Robinson along with Pinson.

Prosecutors say Pinson and Robinson are business partners, and Pinson made sure Robinson got the homecoming contract.

SC State cut the first check to WE Entertainment on Aug. 2nd, 2011.  A search of the firm's business filings show that's the same day WE Entertainment became incorporated.

On its first day in business, the firm made $60,000 from SC State.

Contracts show they spent $351,000 on five artists, a stage, lighting, and things like food, beer, liquor, plane tickets, and hotel rooms for the performers. All this money came from student activity fees.

Armed with wire taps, the FBI indicted Pinson over the homecoming contracts.

Griffin would not specify what the flaws in FBI's the investigation were, but he said he looks forward to exposing those flaws in court.

"I feel real bad about the situation," said McDaniel. "Because it was a lot of money spent and that money could go to so much more."

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