COLUMBIA — In summer 2011, officials at South Carolina State University were defending the school’s transportation center, a multi-million-dollar project in which a state audit had found mismanagement and poor planning but no overt impropriety.
At the same time, unbeknownst to the Orangeburg school’s administration, federal officials were launching their own probe. That investigation came to light this week with the indictment of the former chairman of the school’s board of trustees and a guilty plea from S.C. State’s former chief of campus police. Prosecutors haven’t said their ongoing probe is linked to the transportation project, but a government watchdog said that could be where the investigation is headed.
On Thursday, Jonathan Pinson, a 42-year-old Greenville businessman who chaired S.C. State’s board for several years, pleaded not guilty to taking kickbacks. Former school police chief Michael Bartley has already admitted his role in a kickback conspiracy. And prosecutors say Pinson conspired with a third man, businessman Eric Robinson, to get favors in exchange for using Robinson’s entertainment company to promote a homecoming concert.
Pinson joined S.C. State’s board in 2005 and was its chair in June 2011, when the Legislative Audit Council said mismanagement and a lack of planning were largely to blame for construction delays at the school’s James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center. Announced in 1998, the center named for U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, an alumnus, was heralded as a showpiece for research and training.
But by 2006, the project had lost its federal designation. A federal audit of one grant found that financial records were confusing and that accountants couldn’t tell where money went. Construction began on land the university thought it owned but didn’t.
State auditors found no evidence of missing money but questioned spending and billing, noting the school didn’t have a viable plan to raise more than $80 million needed to complete the center. Since the audit, school officials have promised more oversight, and some work at the site is now under way.
As much of the attention on S.C. State remained focused on the audit, federal authorities got a tip from an informant and began their investigation into Pinson, prosecutors said Thursday. In July 2011, the FBI placed a wiretap on Pinson’s phone and, for several months, monitored his conversations with Bartley and a Florida businessman who hoped to sell a tract of Orangeburg County land to the university.
In those conversations, prosecutors say, Pinson discussed the sale, arranging that he receive a Porsche SUV as a “thank you” gift for his help. For his assistance, Bartley was set to get $30,000 and an all-terrain vehicle but agreed to help the government after he was approached by the FBI, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore.
“Mr. Bartley agreed to contact administrators and act as another person who would suggest, for example, that this was a good thing,” Moore said of the sale. “Mr. Bartley had been out to the property before, and he took people out to the property to explain the benefits to the university if they would purchase the property.”
The phone calls continued until November 2011, and the land deal was stopped a month before it was set to become final, Moore said.
As the federal wiretap ended, the university’s president was doing his own inquiry. In December 2011, then-president George Cooper hired former state police chief Reggie Lloyd to conduct an internal investigation, the details of which have never been released.
Cooper fired eight administrators two months later in February 2012, including Bartley, accusing them of failing to follow university rules and procedures. At the time, Lloyd said the personnel matters included allegations of “criminal misconduct” but gave no details.
Two weeks after those moves, Pinson stepped down as board chairman but remained a trustee. In March 2012, Cooper resigned as president.
The school fielded more criticism throughout 2012. Several board members resigned, saying they felt the body couldn’t effectively govern. Lawmakers considered legislation to replace the entire board or reduce its size, but that effort collapsed.
On Dec. 28, 2012, Pinson resigned from the board altogether — nine days after a federal grand jury indicted him on charges of interference with commerce by threat of violence.
Prosecutors have promised more indictments but haven’t said if any upcoming charges will be related to the transportation center. However, John Crangle of watchdog group Common Cause said federal authorities may be hoping that Pinson and Robinson can lead them to more information about the project. If convicted, each man faces up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
“They may be interested in the Clyburn Transportation money and what happened to all of that, and they feel that, if they can put the squeeze on Pinson, he can let them know what else he knows about the shenanigans down there,” Crangle said. “If a guy like Pinson and Robinson, if he’s facing long time, he’ll sing like a bird.”