A federal appeals court has overturned the racketeering conviction of a former South Carolina State University board chairman, arguing federal prosecutors did not provide evidence to justify the charge.
Jonathan Pinson had appealed his 2014 conviction on 29 different charges after a jury found he sought bribes for projects involving the historically-black institution and misused thousands of dollars in government funds for a Columbia low-income housing project and Marion County diaper plant which was never built. He was sentenced to five years in prison in May 2015 and ordered to repay $337,000, but remained free during his appeal.
While the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday upheld most of the charges, it overturned the most severe verdicts for racketeering and federal program fraud. The decision means U.S. District Judge David Norton will need to set a new sentence for the remaining counts. Pinson could still receive a five-year sentence given the other charges.
Prosecutors said Pinson used his position to arrange kickbacks for himself and fellow SC State employees after helping a Greenville business win the promotion rights for a 2011 homecoming concert and with a Florida developer for a separate land deal. Pinson and SC State’s then-general counsel Edwin Givens each received $500 for the concert Federal authorities moved in before the school’s board took up the real estate deal, but said Pinson was promised a new Porsche SUV while SC State’s then-police chief Michael Bartley would receive an ATV.
Pinson was also named as a developer for a proposed Marion County diaper plant in 2009. Prosecutors said he and two other businessmen Robert Williams and Lancelot Wright submitted fraudulent invoices to the county for work that was not performed. Williams and Wright also became involved in the Village at River’s Edge housing project in Columbia with Pinson. Prosecutors said the Pinson diverted Columbia Housing Authority funds meant for a contractor into personal accounts. The project was eventually finished, but the contractor never received the full payment for its services.
The appeals panel ruled in a 2-1 decision that the Justice Department did not prove Pinson and his co-conspirators met the definition of “racketeering” under federal law because the individuals appeared to be acting in their own varying self-interests, rather than as an organized group.
“Pinson is the only member common to all four ventures. As a result, we cannot say that the government proved a single conspiracy in which each conspirator shared “the same criminal objective,” Judge G. Steven Agee wrote. “On the contrary, the cast of characters here was of at least two minds, if not more.”
“The four ventures here involved different memberships, methods, and motives, and thus lacked the ‘common purpose’ and relationships among its associates necessary to establish a RICO enterprise,” he continued.
However, Judge Albert Diaz dissented from the other two on the racketeering charge, arguing there were similar casts of characters involved in both the Marion County and VRE, Inc., cases. “Many of these individuals planned to—and in some cases, did—take advantage of their roles at SCSU or in grant-supported ventures to generate fraudulent payments for associates involved in other schemes,” he wrote. “While I agree that the evidence is not overwhelming, a rational jury could have found a sufficient relationship among members of the enterprise.”
Pinson’s attorney Jim Griffin said the ruling shows prosecutors “overreached” in the case.