Federal prosecutors say a former South Carolina State University trustee was one of three men who pled guilty in a corruption case — the second former school trustee to do so in a year’s time.
47-year-old Lancelot Wright of Lexington pleaded guilty Wednesday before a federal district judge in Charleston. Also admitting guilt were Wright’s business partners, 57-year-old Robert “Tony” Williams of Tampa, Fla.; and 46-year-old Phillip Mims of Columbia. The three are charged with conspiring to steal and convert public funds and mail fraud. The conspiracy count is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. On the fraud count, the men each face up to 30 years behind bars and a $1 million fine.
Judge David Norton will sentence all three defendants at a later date after a pre-sentence report is prepared by the United States Probation Office.
Wright is a Columbia businessman who was involved in several real estate investments. He served on the S.C. State board of trustees from 2008 until he resigned in 2012, citing personal reasons. Williams is president of Ascension Hospice in Irmo. Mims is a former banker who is currently president of Quanta Lighting in Columbia. Most of the corruption accusations dealt with the trio’s investments outside those businesses.
The plea comes 11 months after former S.C. State board of trustees chairman Jonathan Pinson was indicted on charges that he had taken kickbacks in exchange for a promise that the school would buy a parcel of property. Pinson’s attorney said his client has “never taken a dime” to make a decision at S.C. State. Investigators will not say whether Wright’s plea is connected to that ongoing investigation. Prosecutors say the three men were involved in several businesses in the Columbia area that misused government grants and bank loans meant for real estate projects.
For the first time, investigators are revealing more about a separate scheme implicating Wright in several crooked real estate deals.
In 2009, Wright and Williams worked to bring a struggling diaper plant called Softee Supremes from Georgia to Marion County, S.C. The South Carolina Department of Commerce awarded a $1 million grant to Marion County to assist in the relocation and operation of the plant. Wright, Williams, Mims, and others launched a new company, Supremes LLC, that would own the new building. But prosecutors say the trio instead launched a scheme to steal and convert grant funds for their use by submitting falsified invoices for payment to their new company. Prosecutors say the men then split more than $80,000 in proceeds from the fraud.
The indictments also state Wright and Williams agreed in 2009 to become investors in the proposed Village at River’s Edge, a 60-unit public housing development in Columbia. The project was funded through $10 million in “stimulus” funds. In August of that year, Williams made a “kickback” to a Columbia municipal employee in exchange for that employee’s assistance, the indictment states. Neither the employee nor the nature of the “assistance” was given, although assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore said the employee no longer worked for the city. Mims then joined the Village at River’s Edge as a project manager. Prosecutors say he used that role to engage in a scheme to illegally siphon funds received from a federal grant by pocketing money which was to be used for construction costs at the VRE.
Indictments also note the partners misused a bank loan that was meant to build the St. Andrews Medical Village in northwest Columbia. A 2007 loan for Strategies Development Group was meant to only cover construction costs. But prosecutors say money from the loan was used for other purposes, ultimately causing “substantial” losses to the bank.