Pinson attorney claims Benjamin was original target of probe

OK, so now someone is alleging that there was, at least in the past, federal interest in the mayor of Columbia:

CHARLESTON, SC — Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and former city employee Tony Lawton were among the original targets of what has become a broad federal public corruption investigation, a defense attorney said in federal court here Wednesday.

Attorney Jim Griffin of Columbia said the FBI improperly redirected its case toward his client, Greenville businessman Jonathan Pinson, making the evidence gathered about Pinson illegal because it was gained through wiretaps aimed at Benjamin and Lawton and the city of Columbia.

Griffin said that wiretaps that captured Pinson’s cell phone conversations exceeded the authority of the judge’s approval because the investigation was aimed at possible corruption in Columbia city government.

“It’s the fruit of the poisonous tree,” Griffin told U.S. District Judge David Norton…

The judge said the recordings could be used.

For our part, we don’t know whether the allegation of federal interest in the mayor was true, or whether the FBI is interested in him now. Because no one else is talking, and Griffin doesn’t elaborate.

51 thoughts on “Pinson attorney claims Benjamin was original target of probe

  1. Doug Ross

    Isn’t it fairly obvious that the reason people run for political positions that pay less money than similar jobs they might hold in the private sector is because there are far more opportunities to get rich via patronage, kickbacks, quid quo pro arrangements, etc.?

    Politics is the art of compromise… and that includes compromising ethics.

    Term limits. Term limits. Term limits.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      No, it is not at all obvious. It is, in fact, an unreasonable assumption.

      And if you’re extrapolating that conclusion from THIS example, you’re on particularly shaky ground.

      Does anyone doubt that Benjamin, a well-connected (and he was well-connected long before running for mayor) attorney, could make considerably more money in legitimate private practice than he could in public office?

      1. Doug Ross

        Is there an elected member of Columbia (and Richland County) government who doesn’t have some shady ethics blot on his/her resume? Not just run of the mill cheating on expense accounts or getting a friend / family member a job.

        1. Doug Ross

          I mean, seriously, they do so much work in private/behind closed doors… it’s outrageous that every single meeting is not done in public and videotaped. There are very, very, very few occasions when public officials should be sheltered from public view. The fact that we have to have a FOIA law is ridiculous.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            They don’t do a lot behind closed doors!

            And Moe and Leona don’t have ethics blots, nor Sam Davis. Seth Rose, neither.

            When you work in real estate, you are going to brush up against some dodgy people, and shade gets thrown. The officials who work salaried jobs, or in cleaner industries don’t have a problem. Thing is, having real estate experience can be useful in legitimate municipal business!

            No one who knows Tameika thinks she is crooked.

          2. Mark Stewart


            I don’t know how you encounter government, but it is naive to say that a significant portion of municipal decision-making is not done behind closed doors across the Midlands.

            It is also fair to say that if one works in real estate development, one is going to brush up against dodgy municipal officials. If we wanted to be charitable, we could say that the opportunity to engage in the development process unfortunately can, on occasion, bring out some baser instincts in some officials, administrators and even the public at large. Real estate development is not per se a dirty industry. The problem it creates is that by its very nature development enables an unintended play pen where municipal officials like to wallow. It has always been that way. But I would make the point that legitimate developers are almost always on the receiving end of the muddy mess others stir up.

          3. Kathryn Fenner

            Are you suggesting that, say, Krista Hampton or Johnathan Chambers are crooked? Because I find that very hard to believe! Development Services people seem pretty scrupulous, in my experience.

            I think Community Development has been plagued by incompetence and allegedly one crook.

            I think real estate development has historically been thinly regulated and attracted both legitimate risk-takers and crooks. C’mon, the classic scams involve selling real estate like the Brooklyn Bridge and swampland in Florida.

          4. Kathryn Fenner

            Also, developers usually prefer max secrecy until they are ready to go public! It’s us community people who want to know what’s up while we can still influence it.

        2. Silence

          I haven’t heard anything dirty about Sam Davis. I haven’t heard anything dirty about Leona Plaugh.

      2. Bryan Caskey

        I agree with Brad. In a similar vein, I know plenty of judges (especially the really good ones) who could make much more in private practice than they do on the bench. Having said that, being a judge doesn’t seem like it would be as stressful as being a litigator, but maybe that’s because I haven’t been on the other side of the bench.

        However, to say that someone in government work must be corrupt because they are making less than they would be in the private sector just doesn’t hold water. There’s also a level of job stability, and benefits that come with a government job that might not exist in the private sector.

        1. Doug Ross

          You also get special treatment when you have a couple DUI’s.. Most other jobs would find that career limiting.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            But even you could have a pebble in your shoe!

            Fact is, far more people than I’d like to think get DUIs swept away. When you figure how many times one is likely to have driven drunk before getting caught, it’s no wonder we are the most dangerous driving state! You don’t have to have a very good lawyer to get a free pass at least once!

        2. Scout

          It’s true. Doug you always seem to assume that everybody else in the world acts on the same motivations as you. Or at least your statements seem to suggest that you don’t think others could have any motivations other than the ones that make sense to you (i.e. money in this case).

          That’s kind of a narrow view. There are more things in heaven and earth, Doug, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (i.e. people motivated by things other than just money)

          1. Doug Ross

            And I am not motivated by money. I am motivated by personal freedom. Wanna compare charitable donations for this year?

          2. Kathryn Fenner

            You work awfully hard for someone who values personal freedom more.
            I’d say my lifestyle more closely matches what you claim your values are.

          3. Scout


            I’m merely drawing conclusions based on your statements. If you want to call that psychoanalysis, I suppose you can, but I don’t think it is, necessarily.

            I make less money than I could in the private sector. It does not mean I want to work for free or that I don’t earn enough for my own personal fulfillment even though it is “less” than I could make in the private sector.

            The point is there are other motivations besides money for many people.

            And the following statement by you simply does not acknowledge that possibility:

            “Isn’t it fairly obvious that the reason people run for political positions that pay less money than similar jobs they might hold in the private sector is because there are far more opportunities to get rich via patronage, kickbacks, quid quo pro arrangements, etc.?”

            Maybe that is one reason for some of the people that run for political positions. It is not “the reason” nor is it “fairly obvious” in my opinion.

            We could compare charitable contributions, but I don’t see how that’d be relevant.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    Well, throw up enough and something may stick.

    Based on what is reported, I am not sure the fruit is poisoned. I suspect this defense is more about the politics. Bryan?

    Which is not to say that the man who would be strong mayor was not a target. Like duh! Why wouldn’t they investigate him? Word is that Person A was not fired sooner because the then city manager was hoping they’d indict him already! I would assume that any politician in the vicinity of River’s Edge, or SC State, would be ripe for investigation!

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “Well, throw up enough and something may stick.”


      This is why I don’t opine about things like this. Y’all think I’m this irresponsible intuitive leaper, but stuff like this brings out the Fair Witness in me. I offer no opinions as to the substance until all facts are in.

    2. Silence

      Add North Main Plaza, Food Fresh, Birds on a Wire, Black Ops, The Richland County Elections Office and Benedict College to your “ripe” list.

        1. Silence

          “Also at issue is a loan for $179,000 to CamBry Inc., a company that filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in early 2009. The timing and purpose of the CamBry loan has been a matter of controversy. CamBry purchased two Birds on a Wire restaurants formerly owned by Councilman Daniel Rickenmann, but Rickenmann has painstakingly demonstrated that it did not use federal funds directly for the purchase. Instead, it used a private bank loan that was then repaid with the $179,000 empowerment zone loan. Rickenmann says HUD wrongly implicated him as having profited from the loan, and he has shown Free Times documents that back up the assertion. The city’s interim chief financial officer, Bill Ellis, told Free Times in mid-February that the confusion stemmed from the city empowerment zone office providing HUD with shoddy paperwork. Rickenmann said on March 1 that he had not seen the Feb. 18 letter from HUD. Regardless, HUD says that the SCEZ must promptly reimburse its line of credit for $179,000 in non-federal funds”. – See more at:


          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Apropos of nothing — when I was a student at USC, in the fall of 1971, when I knew ONE GUY on my floor of Snowden who had a car — I used to walk to the Winn-Dixie that was in the location where the Five Points Walgreens is now, and walk back up the hill to the honeycombs.

            I would buy things like a can of corned beef hash, which I would eat straight out of the can. Ketchup made it more palatable…

            Another favorite was peanut butter scooped up with Fritos. I had a stomach of iron in those days…

          2. Kathryn Fenner

            I walk at least an hour a day, but I tried several times walking to Earth Fare, about a mile from my house and back with only daily groceries for two people and found it very difficult.

          3. Kathryn Fenner

            Sure I can, and did, with two bags, but they get mighty heavy, and I was in my prime. I had an hour to devote to shopping daily. Older folks? Folks with little kids and/or multiple jobs, or jobs that exhaust you because you stand on hard floors for eight hours…..

    3. Bryan Caskey

      I honestly haven’t been following the case that closely. I had a quick post on my blog this AM before I got stuck in Court all day on a discovery dispute. (Ugh.)

      Judge Norton said the evidence wasn’t fruit of the poisonous tree, and he’s certainly much smarter than I am, so I’ll defer to him. As for whether Benjamin was being investigated (or is being investigated) I don’t know. I’m certainly with Brad in the “Wait and See” camp on all this.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    In my editor mode again…

    Given all the stuff flying around on this, I wonder whether The State will take John Monk off of general assignment and give him the time to pursue this? Covering a hearing is one thing. I want to see whether he’ll get the time to dig. Let him use his strengths.

    Up to now, the apparent decision among higher-ups is that, as shorthanded as it is, the paper can’t afford reporters who don’t produce daily bylines. So you see John doing cops and courts stuff.

    I wonder whether they’ll make an exception in this case.

    We’ll see…

    1. Silence

      I hope so. We could really use some good investigative journalism to weave together all of the details of this tapestry, to paint a full picture of the mess.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      And in defense of the editors, I’ve been in that same position, years ago, when we had a lot more resources than they have now. I’ve told reporters who fancied themselves investigators that they needed to get busy and cover some NEWS.

      So it’s a rational decision that they’ve made. It’s just that this might be worth sucking it up and making an exception.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    Word on the street is that Monk got busted out of investigative mode when he ruffled too many feathers with a series on, I think, environmental problems…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Ah, conspiracy theories!

      The truth is always more mundane. John has good basic reporting skills, so he is used as a utility infielder. He can be trusted to do a solid story on whatever…

      You just don’t understand how hard it can be to be an editor with a lot of stories to cover, and a fifth as many reporters as you used to have. Leaving a reporter alone to sniff after a story for a couple of months is just out of the question now…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yeah, I know; y’all are playing the world’s smallest violin now for editors. But it’s tough. They’ll always have my sympathy, as I spent almost 30 years in that role…

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          But this alleged busting dates back to the early 00s or before, if I recall. Back when the newspaper was more news than sports….

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    What about Katrina Shealy, who, following the lead of Lee “Bankrupt” Bright, says we should eliminate the state income tax because her husband’s business hasn’t yielded him a paycheck in two years. Because we need to run government like a failed or failing business?

    1. Doug Ross

      Or run it like Florida, Texas, and New Hampshire. They seem to be doing fine without an income tax. It can be done.

    2. Silence

      TN doesn’t have individual income tax. They seem to do OK. NC is in the process of phasing theirs out, they seem to do OK too.

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    Yes, but you need to rejigger other taxes to make up for lost revenue. She advocates just doing without. So much for roads and safe tax returns….

    And states without income taxes have much higher taxes elsewhere, particularly property taxes. Not a terribly fair way to levy taxes, and the realtors would have a cow!

    1. Doug Ross

      Rejigger away… imagine the economic boomlet that would come from becoming a no income tax state…
      Think of the savings that would come from eliminating most of the Department of Revenue and all the complex income tax laws and loopholes.

      Or if you can’t get rid of the income tax, just make it a flat tax. No deductions, no exemptions, no nothing. Drop it to about 2-3% of every dollar.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Why would companies suddenly want locate here? Our amazing workforce? You know what the executives think of moving here?

        We love it here, more or less, but income tax is hardly in the top ten list of why companies don’t locate here!

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