Dan Johnson in court

Former Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson pleaded guilty to wire fraud in federal court on Tuesday, admitting that he used government funds for personal trips and hotel stays. Staff/Andrew Brown 

COLUMBIA — Former 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday, admitting he used government funds to pay for a personal flight on a Panamanian airline and private stays at hotel rooms in Las Vegas, Chicago and Columbia. 

Johnson, who served as the top prosecutor for Richland and Kershaw counties, officially pleaded guilty to wire fraud. He could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and may be forced to pay a maximum fine of $250,000.

The severity of the sentence will be determined by a judge later, with Johnson's appearance set for June 4. By pleading guilty, prosecutors could advocate for Johnson to receive limited jail time. 

After admitting to his crimes, Johnson declined to comment as he walked out of the courthouse in Columbia. 

Johnson had faced more than two dozen federal corruption-related charges for misusing public money in a pattern of questionable spending first laid out in stories published by The Post and Courier more than a year ago.

Since then, the former prosecutor has been beleaguered by investigations.

An audit found that Johnson and one of his aides misused funds at the solicitor's office. A long list of federal and state charges were filed against him last September. He was removed from office by Gov. Henry McMaster. 

As part of his plea deal, the remaining federal charges will be dropped. But state prosecutors are still pursuing a case against Johnson for misconduct in office, embezzlement and obtaining property by false pretenses. 

The charges that Johnson admitted to Tuesday were part of more than $44,000 in fraudulent spending that federal law enforcement officials identified. Johnson will be made to repay all of that money, according to his plea deal. 

U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie explained in court that Johnson was accused of using a credit card from the solicitor's office to pay for travel, vacations and "romantic liaisons." She asked Johnson whether he agreed there was a "scheme" to defraud the government out of that money. 

"I do, your honor," Johnson said, as he sat next to his attorney. 

The charges that Johnson specifically admitted to included $280 for a Las Vegas hotel, $911 for a room in Chicago, $685 for a ticket on a Panamanian airline, and $137 for a stay at the Hilton in Columbia. The judge asked Johnson whether he denied passing those charges onto Kershaw County. 

"That's correct, your honor," Johnson said. "That happened." 

The judge allowed Johnson to remain out of prison as he waits for his sentence. 

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