Federal trial could expose DeKalb corruption

A public corruption trial involving a scheme to pay kickbacks to an unnamed DeKalb County elected official began this week in federal court in South Carolina.

Testimony during the trial, which is expected to last several weeks, could reveal the identity of the official and indicate whether he or she participated in the plan. No one from DeKalb has been charged in the case.

All of DeKalb’s six commissioners and its interim CEO have denied being the elected official mentioned in the indictment.

The indictment

Prosecutors say Jonathan Pinson, the former chairman of South Carolina State University’s board of trustees, and Eric Robinson, his business partner, used their political and personal connections to enrich themselves through a series of white-collar crimes.

The 52-count indictment alleges they negotiated bribes and kickbacks for land purchases and other business deals. They have pleaded not guilty.

The DeKalb connection

Only two of the criminal counts involve DeKalb County.

The indictment said Pinson and Robinson discussed having a Florida developer pay bribes to the DeKalb official in exchange for favorable treatment. The indictment didn’t provide details about what the defendants wanted from the DeKalb official in return for the payment.

Pinson and Robinson planned to act as “bag men” to facilitate the transaction and pocket some of the cash for themselves, according to the indictment.

The developer, Rick Zahn, reached a plea deal with prosecutors in February. Under the agreement, Zahn pleaded guilty and must testify at trial. He hasn’t been sentenced yet.

Neither the indictment nor prosecutors have said whether Pinson, Robinson and Zahn carried out their alleged effort to pay off the DeKalb official.

What’s next

If wiretapped phone conversations or testimony implicate a DeKalb official, criminal charges could potentially follow.

In unrelated cases, federal authorities in Atlanta are already investigating DeKalb County officials’ use of their taxpayer-backed purchasing cards, and former DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis is scheduled to go on trial in September on allegations that he shook down county vendors for campaign contributions.

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