COLUMBIA — South Carolina leaders are pushing for more scrutiny of spending practices by the state's elected prosecutors in the wake of questionable expenditures by 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson that are now the subject of ongoing investigations.
The Post and Courier has published several reports detailing how the chief prosecutor for Richland and Kershaw counties spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on out-of-state trips, lavish dinners, gym club memberships, luxury Uber rides and payments to his brother, an Arizona entertainer known as DJ Phlava.
The newspaper pinpointed the expenditures in voluminous records obtained from Johnson's office by the watchdog group PAPR.
In response, the S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination has formed a task force to study and recommend new practices for oversight and accountability of spending by the state's 16 solicitors, said Beaufort-area Solicitor Duffie Stone, who chairs the commission.
The task force, which aims to improve transparency in the wake of the Johnson episode, is led by state Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, a former prosecutor.
"It's probably overdue," said Sen. Greg Hembree, a North Myrtle Beach Republican who also serves on the task force. Like Pope, he too is a former solicitor.
The Post and Courier's reporting on Johnson "revealed that there is a problem," Hembree said. "And we might have others out there."
"The goal is to make the money transparent," he said. "It's public money."
That's also the thinking behind a budget amendment Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, is pushing to require that solicitors undergo a financial audit by December.
Pitts said the measure would help provide long-needed oversight. He has for years wanted more information from solicitors to compare their finances to the state's public defender offices, but he said he was spurred into action, in part, by tales of Johnson's generous spending habits.
Johnson, who is seeking re-election this year, didn't return messages left by phone and email. In the wake of the newspaper's reporting, the State Law Enforcement Division and the FBI are conducting inquiries into his office's spending.
As it stands, solicitors collect millions in funding from state and local governments, fees and programs. But their spending practices mostly go unchecked because they are independent agencies within the counties they serve.
"The counties do not audit them — we have never audited them," Pitts said. "There's never really been an avenue to determine what their revenues are and what their expenditures are."
It's unclear if the House proposal will gain support in the Senate. Hembree said solicitors should conduct audits but the state shouldn't require them.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, whose district includes Dorchester and Orangeburg counties, said he would welcome an outside audit if the Legislature follows through on Pitts' idea to allow solicitors to seek reimbursement from the state for the expense. His counties don't provide him with auditing services and the cost would be a burden for his office, he said.
Stone, the Beaufort-area solicitor, gets auditing help from Colleton County but a number of his peers are in the same boat as Pascoe, he said. He suggested that the state set aside $160,000 to cover auditing costs.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who represents Charleston and Berkeley counties, already gets audited. But she said she also would support a statewide audit requirement for prosecutors as long as it didn't duplicate existing reviews and came with a reasonable deadline. "Without question, however, all of our accounts should be subject to audit," she said.