S.C. prosecutor Dan Johnson discusses his expenses (Sept. 18 copy)

Midlands prosecutor Dan Johnson. File/Joseph Cranney/Staff

UPDATE: Gov. Henry McMaster suspended 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson on Wednesday and named Deputy State Attorney General Heather Savitz Weiss, who runs the criminal division, as interim solicitor for Richland and Kershaw counties.

COLUMBIA — A federal grand jury after a months-long investigation indicted Columbia-area prosecutor Dan Johnson and a top staffer on Tuesday on charges that they spent $55,000 in public money for personal expenses.

Johnson and his former communications director Nicole Holland were charged with mail fraud, wire fraud, theft of government funds and conspiracy. The charges carry penalties of up to 10 and 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.

Johnson and Holland enriched themselves in 2016 and 2017 by using office credit cards to pay for personal expenses, including “travel, vacations, romantic liaisons, medical expenses and double-reimbursements for military training,” charging documents state.

Johnson and Holland “embezzled” and “stole” thousands from Johnson’s accounts even as they were funded by more than $10,000 annually in federal grants and drug forfeiture money, the indictments allege. 

With the charges alleging Johnson "abused his position," Gov. Henry McMaster is moving to suspend the chief prosecutor for Richland and Kershaw counties, the governor's office said.

The indictments follow a Post and Courier investigation in March that exposed how Johnson’s office spent thousands of tax dollars on out-of-state trips, gym club memberships and payments to Johnson’s brother, an Arizona DJ known as DJ Phlava.

Holland charged thousands of dollars on an office credit card for two trips last year to Hopkinsville, Ky. — one that involved a $1,020 orthodontist bill and another that coincided with her nephew’s graduation, The Post and Courier reported.

She also charged $1,592 in 2016 for two first class plane tickets from Nashville to Myrtle Beach, receipts show. She charged the flights on Dec. 26, the same day as her sister’s death, according to an obituary.

The newspaper's findings were largely confirmed by an independent audit released in August that stated Johnson charged $43,000 in public money for personal use.

The indictments did not detail the personal expenditures. 

Efforts to reach Johnson, his attorney and Holland were not successful Monday. Johnson has refused to discuss his expenses, citing the ongoing investigations.

"That is a win for those of us who want and cherish clean government," former U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said. "These are the charges that took down (famed mob boss) Al Capone. This is serious."

The indictments also follow Johnson’s defeat in the June 12 Democratic primary by Columbia lawyer Byron Gipson. He faces write-in candidate John Meadors in November, who took Johnson to a primary runoff in 2010.

Last year, a new watchdog group, PAPR.org, filed an open-records request and paid government fees to acquire more than 30,000 pages of spending records from Kershaw and Richland counties.

A team of Post and Courier reporters analyzed these records in March and obtained additional Kershaw County spending documents. Taken together, the documents painted a portrait of excess — a public official who used his office’s accounts as a personal ATM.

Among the newspaper’s findings were that Johnson paid his brother $6,000 to deejay office Christmas parties between 2014 and 2017. He also charged his office credit card for a hotel in the Galapagos Islands. During conference trips to Washington and other cities, he opted to take luxury Uber Black rides, instead of regular taxis or lower-priced ride-share options.

Documents also showed a penchant for parties. He charged more than $8,000 for tickets and parties at the Carolina Cup horse race and another $2,750 that appeared to be season tickets for Columbia Fireflies baseball. 

Within hours of The Post and Courier’s initial report, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson asked the S.C. Law Enforcement Division to investigate. Federal investigators then joined the probe.

Johnson, who earns $136,905 a year as solicitor, eventually hired two lawyers, including a former federal prosecutor. “If we’ve missed some stuff, if the paperwork isn’t right, then we need to get it right,” he told reporters after he filed for reelection in late March.

Johnson said after the internal audit was released last month that all office purchases deemed personal have been reimbursed, though auditors said some expenses — including office parties and gym memberships — were allowed to boost staff morale. Some trips were tied to Johnson's service as a major in the S.C. Air National Guard.

Elected in 2010, Johnson was the first African-American elected as chief prosecutor for the 5th Judicial Circuit. At age 22, he received the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian award, for work at a domestic abuse center.

On his office's website, Johnson listed several of his "philosophies," including: "Public trust is the key to improving our organization."

"This is the end of a horrible episode," said Dick Harpootlian, a former 5th circuit solicitor who aided efforts by a watchdog group to gain access to Johnson's spending records. "This shows what a little sunlight can do."

Andy Shain contributed to this story.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.