The State Ethics Commission ruled Wednesday that Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin did not have to report a Florida trip he took with his former business partner who was later convicted on corruption charges.
During their meeting Wednesday, ethics commissioners unanimously agreed with arguments from Benjamin’s attorney that the 2010 trip was not part of the mayor’s job — but was instead related to his friendship and business dealings with disgraced ex-SC State University trustee Jonathan Pinson. A jury found Pinson guilty last month on 29 counts, including racketeering and theft of government funds.
During Pinson’s trial, federal prosecutors revealed a trip to Orlando that Pinson had taken with Mayor Benjamin in December 2010. That trip was purportedly to meet with Florida developer Richard Zahn, who was in negotiations with Pinson at the time to sell 120 acres of land to S.C. State (Zahn pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud after prosecutors said he agreed to pay kickbacks to Pinson and other S.C. State employees as part of the deal).
Ethics Commission staff began questioning the trip after it was revealed Zahn paid for the flight, a limo, dinner, and a trip to a strip club. State law requires an elected official to disclose any gifts they receive if the gift was believed to be given because of the official’s position or in hopes of seeking a contractual, business, or financial relationship with the city. Benjamin did not list the items on his Statement of Economic Interest.