COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A WIS investigation into a Columbia housing project has uncovered Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin's ties to the development, which is now at the center of a federal investigation.
Benjamin told WIS he sold his interest in The Village at River's Edge out to his former business partner, Jonathon Pinson, in 2009. The sale happened just two days before Benjamin announced his run for the mayor's office.
In September 2012, NBSC filed a lawsuit against Benjamin and Pinson. The suit started foreclosure proceedings against the men and VRE. On April 25, 2013, a circuit court judge awarded NBSC a judgment against Benjamin for $1,330,887.64 and against Pinson for $1,529,622.67.
The project was supposed to provide low-income housing off McCrae Street in Columbia's north side. Benjamin sold the public-private housing development idea to city council during a Sept. 6, 2006 presentation. Benjamin was a lawyer in private practice at the time. The city ultimately agreed to borrow $1.6 million from the federal government to install water and sewage lines and to pave roads through the development.
Benjamin's name is on the founding documents at the South Carolina Secretary of State's office for The Village at River's Edge, LLC. The corporation is the registered owner for the development. Those records show that Benjamin became the registered agent for the LLC in February 2007. His name was removed as the registered agent in November 2009, just three months after announcing his run for office. Benjamin's co-investors have been charged with federal crimes related to the federal loan connected to the project. Those charged with connections to VRE include: Lance Wright, Tony Williams, Phillip Mims, and Jonathan Pinson.
The FBI developed Wright as an informant, according to federal prosecutors. Wright provided agents with information involving criminal activity within the leadership of VRE, according to prosecutors. Benjamin, who records show was still an active investor in VRE during the beginning of the federal investigation, told WIS, "I sold my interest in the development before I ran for office and have recused myself from any city involvement since my election."
Benjamin has not been named in the federal investigation and his name has not come up in open court. U.S. Assistant Attorney Mark Moore would not talk about any potential Benjamin involvement in the FBI's investigation of VRE.
"Did Steve Benjamin's name ever come up on that wire tap during this investigation," Barr asked Moore. "Jody, you know I can't answer questions about a wire tap or an investigation. You know I can't answer those questions, we don't comment on things that are not a matter of public record," Moore said following a Nov. 7 hearing outside the federal courthouse in Charleston.
"I therefore have nothing to add," Benjamin ended his email to WIS. Benjamin would not answer questions in person when we caught up with him following a public event Monday afternoon. The mayor did say, "Jody, grow up," when asked whether he'd talked with or declined an interview with the FBI. Benjamin walked into a locked art exhibit inside the Columbia Museum of Art, then left out a side door.
Here's a timeline of events leading up to the federal indictments handed down Nov. 8:
Sept. 6, 2006: Steve Benjamin makes a presentation to Columbia City Council seeking public-private funding approval for The Village at River's Edge. Benjamin wanted to use tax dollars to help construct the low-income housing project.
Feb. 28, 2008: Steve Benjamin and Jonathan Pinson sign a "promise to pay" with NBSC, taking out a $2,135,764 refinance loan on the VRE project. Multiple tracts of land in and around McCrae and McQueen Street are mortgaged to the bank.
Feb. 29, 2008: Benjamin and Pinson sign and initial a security agreement with NBSC, promising to repay the loan they took out on the VRE project.
July 4, 2009: Federal prosecutors say Lance Wright hosted a party at his home in Columbia. There, the men charged in the federal investigation negotiated paying an unnamed city employee a $5,000 kickback for help with the VRE project, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney, Mark Moore.
August 2009: Steve Benjamin sells out his interest in VRE to Jon Pinson. Two days later, Benjamin files to run for the mayor of Columbia. Benjamin is elected in April 2010.
August 20, 2012: NBSC filed a lawsuit, looking to foreclose on VRE, Pinson, and Benjamin. The filing includes copies of the agreements Pinson and Benjamin signed, promising to repay the $2.1 million the bank loaned them. At the time of the filing, the men owed $1,116,846.94 to NBSC.
April 25, 2013: Lexington County Circuit Court Judge James O. Spence signs a judgment against VRE, Pinson, and Benjamin. The court orders a judgment of $1,330,887.64 against Benjamin, and orders a $1,529,622.67 against Pinson.
Federal prosecutors would not comment on the federal public corruption investigation following two separate hearings this month. Mark Moore did tell reporters to "stay tuned," when asked whether more charges and potentially new defendants could be named in the investigation. Moore did tell reporters that the FBI's investigation into The Village at River's Edge is not finished.
In January, Lance Wright, Tony Williams, and Phillip Mims will face a federal judge for sentencing. The three face up to 30 years and $1 million in fines. All three pleaded guilty to their charges and have agreed to cooperate with the FBI in their investigation involving VRE.
Jonathan Pinson and his co-defendant Eric Robinson have pleaded not guilty to their charges. Both are set for trial in March 2014. Pinson's attorney has asked to have the FBI's wire tap evidence thrown out. A hearing for that is set for December in Charleston. The court has already sealed some evidence in the case regarding the wire taps, that same order has also sealed government exhibit 3: "FBI 302 Re: City of Columbia Council's discussions re: The Village at River's Edge."