South Carolina solicitor spent thousands of public dollars on hotels, parties, and DJs

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Released documents reveal that 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson spent thousands of public dollars on travel and tickets.

Documents revealed by a non-profit Public Access to Public Records (PAPR) have shown that Democrat Dan Johnson, South Carolina’s 5th Circuit Solicitor, spent thousands of dollars of public money for plane trips for his brother, a local DJ, luxury Uber rides, and expensive trips overseas — raising serious questions as to whether Johnson’s actions were illegal or unethical. 

The Charleston Post and Courier was investigating expenditures for Richland and Kershaw counties and found that Johnson was using public money to pay for luxury items seemingly unrelated to his job as solicitor, an elected official responsible for prosecuting cases on behalf of their jurisdiction.

In order to pay for his lavish expenses, Johnson used a credit card provided by the office of the solicitor. Among some of his expenditures include bringing his brother from Phoenix and paying him $3,000 to DJ parties between 2014 and 2017. Other times, he would take extravagant trips around the U.S. and overseas, like traveling to Qatar and Las Vegas in January 2016, Poland, England and Washington D.C. in January 2017, and the Galapagos Islands, Colombia, and Miami in February 2017.

He also paid for luxury hotels, like a $912 stay at a deluxe hotel in the Galapagos Islands, a $798 stay in College Station, Texas near Texas A&M, and $1,588 stay at a hotel in Cleveland. While traveling, he often used the office credit card to pay for his travels. While in Ohio, he paid $626 for a rental car and spent at least $1,200 in Uber rides over a 13 month period.

While Johnson’s expenses are eye-catching, they may not be illegal or even unethical.

He used public money for seemingly non-prosecutorial events like a $6,000 office party, a $2,000 Superbowl party, and a $4,240 party in a bar in downtown Columbia. He also paid for non-prosecutorial personal items like $236 gold cufflinks, $118 for two baseball tickets behind home plate, and $925 to rent limousine services to an unknown destination.

In total, The State reports that Johnson spent 70 days in 2016 and the first nine months of 2017 outside of the state he was elected to represent.

Johnson was slow to respond to reporters’ questions. He avoided a scheduled interview the day before the Post and Courier posted their first article and did not respond to questions emailed to him two days before. He issued a statement on Friday, saying he has spent the day at the hospital waiting for the birth of his baby.

“To my knowledge, no federal, state, Richland or Kershaw County appropriated tax dollars have been used inappropriately,” Johnson initially said to reporters.

Attorney General Alan Wilson was quicker to act. Hours after The Post and Courier broke the story, Alan Wilson said he would ask the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate.

“We have just received this information and are reviewing it,” a spokesperson for Wilson’s office told the Charleston newspaper.

While Johnson’s expenses are eye-catching, they may not be illegal or even unethical.

The Charleston Post and Courier spoke with John Freeman, a professor emeritus of professional ethics at the University of South Carolina. For him, as long as the expenditures were used for business related purposes, they could be covered by public money.

Even buying flowers to boost employee morale could be counted as a business expense.”That has a business purpose that I wouldn’t think twice about,” Freeman said. Those business-related expenses are different than something personal, like donating to charities.

While private law firms often make charitable donations, it is different for elected officials. Those charitable expenses make someone seem better in the community, but Freeman has an issue using public money for charitable expenses.

“You’re basically taking public money and reallocating it to a private charity,” he said. “The taxpayer doesn’t get a deduction out of this.”

Among Johnson’s released expenses are seemingly charitable donations like $1,000 to a fundraiser held by Delta Sigma Theta sorority named “A Red Carpet Affair” and another $1,000 to the “Pink Ice Gala,” a fundraiser held by Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority’s charitable foundation.

Elected prosecutors often have broad discretion on how to carry out the mission of their offices and rarely face scrutiny because there is little oversight or legislative regulation.

While it is unclear if some or any of Johnson’s expenses were made for business purposes, he told the Post and Courier that he would happily discuss his spending with the newspaper. “If a mistake was made, then I will certainly remedy it,” he said.

Johnson also said he stands by his record and time in office.

“I ran on the platform that I would prosecute violent criminals and repeat offenders,” he said. “I also ran on the platform that I would keep our children out of gangs and off the streets; improve community relationships by involving citizens in the process; create community and faith-based programs that provide intervention and second chances for those who deserve them; and improve prosecutor training. I’ve done that and I’m doing that.”

Dick Harpoolitan, a former 5th Circuit solicitor and the former chairperson of the South Carolina Democratic Party, told the Post and Courier that he was appalled by what he called “lavish spending.” Harpoolitan’s law firm has been working with PAPR to release Johnson’s expenditures.

“I was saddened to see a solicitor spending money that could have gone to improving the quality of prosecution in Richard and Kershaw counties instead going to parties, lavish travel and personal expenses,” Harpoolitan said.

Elected prosecutors often have broad discretion on how to carry out the mission of their offices and rarely face scrutiny because there is little oversight or legislative regulation.

The website of the 5th Circuit solicitor lists several of the office’s “mission philosophies,” the first of which includes that “public trust is the key to improving our organization.” Another one reads,”we must always stand ready to account for our actions and not be offended when we are asked to do so.”