July 29, 2014

Jury now considering case against ex-SC State trustee

Pinson outside the federal courthouse in Columbia last January (FILE)

Pinson outside the federal courthouse in Columbia during his arraignment last year (FILE)

A jury will now decide the fate of a former South Carolina State University trustee charged with corruption.

The jury in former board of trustees chairman Jonathan Pinson’s racketeering case received instructions on Monday from District Judge David Norton before going into deliberations.

Closing statements were given Friday as Pinson’s two-week trial wrapped up. Prosecutors argued that the former chairman used his position to push for a land deal with a Florida developer so he could get a Porsche SUV from that developer as a thank-you gift. Investigators also say Pinson skimmed money from a low-income Columbia housing project his firm was building and a struggling diaper factory in Marion County.

Federal prosecutors presented hours of phone wiretaps and several other witnesses who had already pleaded guilty to their part in the scheme, including the Florida developer Richard Zahn, former SC State University general counsel Ed Givens, and ex-SC State police chief Michael Bartley.

Pinson’s attorneys say he never profited from any of the deals. Attorney Jim Griffin also suggested several of Pinson’s ex-partners exaggerated Pinson’s role to avoid prison time themselves.

A jury will also decide the fate of Greenville businessman Eric Robinson, who prosecutors accuse of collaborating with Pinson in several of the schemes.

The name of Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin also cropped up several times during this month’s trial. Benjamin was a former business partner with Pinson on the Village at River’s Edge housing project in Columbia, selling his share of the project to the other investors during his run for mayor in 2010. Zahn also testified that Benjamin had accompanied Pinson on a trip to Florida that involved a visit to a strip club. At least two witnesses have said Zahn paid two women from the club to accompany the group back to the hotel that night.

Benjamin has not been charged and was not accused of any illegal actions during the trial. He has said he will not comment until the trial ends.

Winthrop trustees make it official, fire school president

Suspended president Jamie C. Williamson (Image: Winthrop University)

Suspended president Jamie C. Williamson (Image: Winthrop University)

Winthrop University trustees voted to fire president Jamie Williamson on Thursday afternoon, finalizing a move that appeared imminent two weeks ago.

After three hours behind closed doors, school trustees voted unanimously to terminate the suspended president, naming interim chief executive officer Debra Boyd as the university’s acting president.

Board chair Kathy Bighams says the trustees’ confidence in Williamson’s leadership was fractured. “Candor and trust between the president and the board are crucial for this university and any university to thrive,” she said after Thursday’s meeting. “Once that candor and trust is irretrievably broken, decisions must be made to chart a different course.”

Documents released by the board last week claim Williamson erroneously hired her husband, lied to the trustees and the public, and had an explosive personality.

Williamson released a statement shortly after the vote, saying, “This is a very sad day for Winthrop University and me personally. I am proud and honored to have been chosen as the 10th President of Winthrop a year ago. From the outset, I believed that I could provide the leadership to accomplish the visions that so many people shared with me.”

She did not address the merits of the board’s decision. Williamson’s attorney also threatened a lawsuit for breach of trust, slander and defamation. There’s no word on the status of that lawsuit.

The school’s board of trustees voted on June 13 to give Williamson a 13-day notice of termination, one day after the Rock Hill Herald newspaper reported her husband was paid $27,000 for government relations work at the school, apparently without the board’s knowledge. Mr. Williamson returned the money after the board’s vote.

The board will now seek a permanent replacement for Williamson. A decisions is expected in the coming months.

Andrew Kiel of Rock Hill station WRHI filed this report

SC State trustees decide against eliminating basketball in budget crisis

As South Carolina State University continues struggling with budget problems, the school is considering a budget that would eliminate the varsity men’s basketball team and an elementary school operated by the college.

However, the school’s trustees were not willing to consider the idea at their Wednesday meeting, even as the next budget year begins in less than a week. The trustees did vote to raise tuition by 3.2 percent (about a $313 increase) for in-state students and 5 percent (an additional $946) for out-of-state.

SC State officials are currently struggling over how they will make up a nearly $14 million debt. The school received a $6 million state loan last month, but the loan was to cover immediate financial obligations. Last week, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed S.C. State on probation due to what the accrediting group said was poor handling of financial problems.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the trustees could not agree how to make up the enormous deficit. The board considered a proposed budget that would eliminate or cut funding for numerous programs, including the men’s basketball and women’s golf teams, closing the Felton Laboratory School, and requiring 14 days of employee furloughs.

President Thomas Elzey made it clear he did not support the proposal. “We cannot do it by cutting,” he said, according to WIS-TV. “Grow our way out of it and raise money. Those are two ways of being able to improve our overall financial position and help us address these deficits that we’re facing.”

Trustees appeared to oppose the idea of eliminating basketball, however, especially after Interim Athletics Director Octavio Miro reported that it would cost the university $730,000 in exit fines and would likely put the university on probation with the NCAA.

The Felton Lab is an elementary school that serves as a location for S.C. State students to train as teachers. Its closure would save the school $959,000 per year, according to the budget.

State law requires the school to have a budget in place before its new fiscal year begins on July 1, but trustees say that is unlikely.

Spearman wins GOP nomination for SC education chief

Spearman -wide

Spearman, left, gets congratulations after Tuesday night’s win.

Molly Spearman defeated Sally Atwater in the Republican run-off for state Superintendent of Education.

Spearman has been active in the South Carolina education community for the past three decades, while Atwater worked just as long in federal education policy. Spearman targeted Atwater’s time away from her home state in her ads, saying South Carolina needs to “keep Washington out of our classrooms.”

Atwater, the widow of one of the most powerful players in national politics in the 1980′s, Lee Atwater, surrounded herself with some of the state’s most established Republicans.  Her campaign challenged Spearman’s party credentials, since she became Republican in the Reagan years, but later worked under Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, a Democrat, after campaigning against her.

Spearman’s most active supporters came from within the education community, including a bipartisan team of former SC teachers of the year who spoke to teachers on her behalf in the past two weeks.

Spearman also served four terms as a South Carolina legislator in the 1990s.

Since she joined the race, Spearman has been on part-time status as the director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators. 

Spearman will face Tom Thompson in November’s General Election. He defeated the top primary vote-getter Sheila Gallagher in Tuesday’s run-off.

Thompson is a former dean of graduate studies at South Carolina State University. He is now the PhD administrator for Walden University, an online school based in Minneapolis, MN.

He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The most telling numbers of the election night are the disparate turnouts between the two parties.

With 96 percent of precints reporting, Spearman had about 71,500 votes (57 percent of GOP voters) and Thompson had about 22, 280 (59 percent of Democratic voters).

Demolition of historic Florence building back on track

Florence Trust building, from National Historic Register

Florence Trust building, from National Historic Register

A problem with a state permit has delayed the demolition of a nearly century-old downtown Florence landmark.

Crews working to demolish the Florence Trust building said Monday that they have finally received an encroachment permit they need from the South Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) that will allow them to close a critical intersection for the project. Work was supposed to start on June 17.

Wofford Demolition owner Luke Wofford said he had received the permit on Monday and hopes to close the intersection of Evans and Irby Street on Thursday.

The city’s downtown development manager Ray Reich said the project was delayed because Wofford did not realize at first that it needed such a permit to do the work. “He’s very experienced. He’s done high-rises but he’s never had to deal with a situation where you have to close down a state street,” Reich said about Wofford. “They didn’t understand that somebody had to submit a detailed plan to DOT.”

The 97-year-old former bank and office building is being demolished to make room for a new medical college campus. Crews spent Monday removing the building’s bricks, which is not covered by the encroachment permit.

[Read more...]