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Columbia mayor among those praising character of ex-SCSU trustee awaiting kickback sentencing

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin is among those who have written to a federal judge considering the sentence for a former South Carolina State University trustee embroiled in a kickback scandal, according to documents filed in court earlier this month.

Jonathan Pinson had been scheduled to be sentenced this week in a case that involves a corruption scheme at the historically black Orangeburg school. The Greenville businessman was convicted last year on 29 counts including racketeering, kickbacks and money laundering, and authorities said he skimmed federal money going to projects, then filed false paperwork to get more money from the government.

The sentencing has now been rescheduled for next month. Pinson potentially faces more than a decade in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, although his lawyers say he should get far less, citing other public corruption cases that yielded relatively short or probation-only sentences.

Benjamin has done business with Pinson, and the two were the major partners in a public-private housing development until Benjamin withdrew to run for Columbia mayor in 2010.

In court papers, Pinson's defense attorneys quote the mayor, who was not charged in the case, as praising Jonathan Pinson's commitment to his family and work with nonprofits.

"Jonathan's undying commitment to change lives through mentoring youth and young adults, while making efforts to improve everyone's overall quality of life through service on boards and commissions," should be seen as notable, Benjamin wrote in a letter that was quoted by Pinson's attorneys.

In August, state ethics officials said laws didn't require Benjamin to have disclosed an all-expenses paid trip from a Florida developer also ensnared in the case. The trip happened in 2010 as Benjamin and Pinson traveled to a meeting on a private jet belonging to developer Richard Zahn, had dinner and visited a strip club.

Benjamin, who was criticized for not reporting the trip as a gift, said he regretted the trip but that it was personal and didn't need to be reported to ethics officials.

Zahn pleaded guilty as part of a corruption scheme with Pinson and testified against him. Prosecutors said Zahn wanted to sell a 120-acre tract of land known as the Sportsman Retreat to South Carolina State. In return for helping with the sale, he promised Pinson a new Porsche.

The court papers filed this month by Pinson's lawyers also detail support from pastors, the businessman's wife, and Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine.

Pinson's sentencing is now scheduled for May 20.


Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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