John Hardee

Former Department of Transportation commissioner John Hardee. File/SCDOT/Provided

A former South Carolina transportation commissioner accepted alleged bribes from a state contractor but is likely to avoid time behind bars.

John Hardee, the commissioner, pleaded guilty to obstruction-related charges in January, but for the past six months the facts surrounding that case have been shrouded in mystery.

That ended on Monday. Details of an alleged bribery scheme burst into public view after federal prosecutors filed a new sentencing memorandum in the case. 

According to the memo, a confidential witness admitted they made several payments directly to Hardee and that the money was intended as a bribe to help their business win state contracts. 

The unnamed witness provided documentation detailing the payments to Hardee, who served on the S.C. Department of Transportation Commission from 1998 to 2007 and from 2014 to 2018. 

But from there the case broke down. Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Carolina say they were unable to prove Hardee took any "official" action to influence state contracts in return for the alleged payoffs. 

"Although Hardee’s acceptance of payments that (the confidential witness) intended to be bribes is distasteful, the United States Supreme Court has found it to be lawful so long as there is no official action," federal prosecutors noted in the memo. 

As a result, Hardee — the son-in-law of Sen. Hugh Leatherman, one of South Carolina's most powerful lawmakers — could escape the case without serving any time in prison.

Jim Griffin, Hardee's attorney in the case, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. 

Federal prosecutors on Monday asked U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten to sentence Hardee to probation for attempting to thwart the federal investigation.

According to the memo, the FBI recorded phone calls and meetings between Hardee and the confidential witness. 

Those audio and video recordings show Hardee pressured the witness to lie to the FBI. In several instances, Hardee asked the federal witness to convince the FBI the various payments were for a loan or other work Hardee had performed.

When the witness explained there were emails to prove otherwise, Hardee told the witness to destroy the communications before federal officials could find them. 

"The government cannot prove an official action, nor can the government prove that Hardee ever intended to perform an official action," the prosecutors wrote. "Thus, Hardee’s crime lies only in his decision to attempt to obstruct an investigation into those payments."

Hardee's sentencing hearing has yet to be scheduled. 

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.