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.
Benjamin’s attorney Greg Harris argued in a letter to the commission that the mayor did not disclose the trip because Pinson had invited him along and Zahn had no pending contracts with the city. The two have worked together on several real estate projects (including the Columbia development Rivers Edge that would eventually lead to charges against Pinson) and the mayor had never met Zahn before the trip, according to Harris.
Zahn later spoke with Benjamin about future “development opportunities” in Columbia, but Ethics Commission executive director Herb Hayden said that evidence was not relevant because it came after the trip. The Columbia Housing Authority had rejected a bid from Zahn’s firm to redevelop a public housing project in the city. Hayden said the authority was a separate entity from the city, even though the authority’s board of directors is appointed by city council (Benjamin serves on the council as part of his mayoral duties).
“Our job is to enforce the law as it’s written by the Legislature, not to try to infer something from that,” Hayden told reporters after the meeting.
Benjamin was not in attendance at Wednesday’s teleconference meeting, but released a statement after the 7-0 vote. “The South Carolina Ethics Commission’s unanimous decision has concluded what I have always maintained: that I complied with the law,” he said. “I respect their decision and the rule of law. At the end of the day I’m proud of the fact that when faced with wild speculation and innuendo we stood up for the facts and, when it was over, the truth won out.”