Officials: Benjamin's alleged FL trip counts as 'gift' under ethics rules

Jonathan Pinson and Steve Benjamin
Jonathan Pinson and Steve Benjamin

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin could be facing a state ethics investigation because of an alleged trip to Florida he took with former South Carolina State University board chairman Jonathan Pinson.

As the public corruption trial against Pinson wraps up, questions continue to surround Benjamin and the trip.

Testimony in Pinson's trial indicated Benjamin, Pinson, former university Police Chief Michael Bartley, Dr. Charles Smith, and Florida businessman Richard Zahn flew to Orlando, FL in December 2010 on Zahn's dime to help close a deal to sell 120 acres worth of land to SC State.

"You need to put yourself in a position as a public official where you're above suspicion," said John Crangle with SC Common Cause. "When you're taking handouts, freebies, gratuities, gifts, free trips, free food, from someone who has an interest in getting something from the government that you preside over, that looks bad."

According to federal prosecutors, Pinson would have received a Porsche SUV for himself as a thank you gift if the deal went through.

During the trip, a witness testified, the group had dinner, visited a strip club, and ended up taking two of the women back to their hotel. Zahn also testified that he flew the men down on his private aircraft and had a limo there to pick them up.

The witness continued, and said Pinson and Benjamin were with the women in the hotel room but he did not know what happened after.

But there's a new wrinkle in this story. Benjamin, according to State Ethics Commission officials, should have declared the trip in his 2011 ethics filings.

The State Ethics Commission says the trip counted as a "gift" under state ethics laws.

"Mayor Benjamin was elected in April 2010. He filed a 2011 [statement of economic interest form] and failed to disclose the receipt to the trip," said Cathy Hazelwood, the Ethics Commission's deputy director and general counsel, said. "Our standard procedure is to contact a filer and ask them to amend his report. I have not spoken to Mayor Benjamin. If a complaint were filed I could neither confirm nor deny the filing under the confidentiality provisions of the Ethics Act."

WIS has checked the ethics forms ourselves and also found nothing to suggest the supposed trip.

We also received five months of Truth in Spending reports from October 2010 to March 2011 from the city, which would detail any spending from all departments. There was nothing resembling a payback or trip to Florida.

Except for a short statement from his spokesman, Benjamin has elected to stay mostly silent on the matter until the trial ends.

"Sometimes people do not file required disclosure forms because of negligence, because of carelessness, because they're busy, sometimes they don't file because their indifference, and sometimes they don't file because they have something to hide," Crangle said.

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