The Columbia area's chief prosecutor says he stands by his work and spending practices as state investigators review thousands of dollars of expenditures his office made with public funds on luxury Uber rides, a private club membership, golf tournaments and multiple other perks.
Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson had failed to return repeated calls and emails from The Post and Courier this week regarding a wealth of curious bills found in his office's spending records. He also didn't show up for an appointment Wednesday at the solicitor's office, keeping a reporter waiting for three hours.
Johnson finally issued a statement Friday indicating that doctor appointments had kept him from meeting with the reporter. He said he was at Palmetto Baptist Hospital on Friday awaiting the birth of his first child.
Johnson, whose office prosecutes cases in Richland and Kershaw counties, said he has tried to do more as solicitor than put people in prison, and his office spending reflects an effort to engage and support the community so "people do well instead of committing crimes."
"For years, all I have heard is that all prosecutors do is put people in prison; and that there are always black people going to court ... that all prosecutors do is prosecute," he said. "But that’s not all we do. We have diversion programs. We sponsor community events. We spend money with organizations that are helping our youth. We care about our young people."
His statement came one day after The Post and Courier reported Johnson's office had spent big bucks outside the courtroom while some 9,000 active cases remain pending on its docket.
Reported charges include a $6,000 Christmas party with beef tenderloin and a $2,000 Super Bowl bash complete with face-painting services, according to the newspaper's analysis of records obtained by PAPR, a new South Carolina watchdog group.
That analysis found Johnson had spent many thousands of dollars more on premium Uber rides, a membership at the swank Capital City Club, home plate tickets to a Minnesota Twins games and much more. In one case, Johnson put a $912 charge on the office’s credit card for a stay at a deluxe hotel in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.
It was unclear what business purpose that trip entailed or whether Johnson reimbursed the government for that bill.
Within hours of the newspaper's report publishing online Thursday, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson asked the State Law Enforcement Division to review the matter and determine if a larger investigation is warranted.
Johnson called the newspaper's report "concerning," but he did not point to any inaccuracies in the article or attempt to clarify any of the specific expenditures detailed in the piece.
"I would like to say this, to my knowledge, no federal, State, Richland or Kershaw County appropriated tax dollars have been used inappropriately for the expenditures outlined in the March 8, 2018, Post and Courier article," he said.
The Post and Courier pinpointed the charges in nearly 1,000 pages of Kershaw County documents recently obtained by PAPR, whose purpose is to acquire government records using the state's Freedom of Information Act. Its leadership includes Chris Bryant, a Charleston lawyer; Bill Fox, a former Greenville News editor; and Porter Barron Jr., owner of The War Mouth, a Columbia restaurant.
Dick Harpootlian's law firm is working with the group to file open records requests. Harpootlian is a former 5th Circuit solicitor and ex-chairman of the state Democratic Party.
The newspaper is in the process of reviewing more than 10,000 pages of additional spending records from Johnson's office that PAPR released late Thursday night.
Johnson, a Democrat who is up for re-election this year, suggested that politics were behind the sudden attention being paid to his spending. He said, "it's sad and disappointing that a former solicitor with a political axe to grind would be responsible for this attack on me and my office."
Though not mentioned by name in Johnson's statement, the only former solicitor with apparent ties to the PAPR organization is Hartpoolian, who served as deputy solicitor from 1975 to 1983 and the elected solicitor from 1991 to 1995.
Hartpoolian said he was dismayed by Johnson's comments and by the "lavish spending" outlined in the records that have been released. He said the office took a moral, frugal approach when he and Johnson's predecessors were in charge.
"I was saddened to see a solicitor spending money that could have gone to improving the quality if prosecution in Richard and Kershaw counties instead going to parties, lavish travel and personal expenses," he said.
Johnson said he would be happy to sit down and review his spending records,"and if a mistake was made, then I will certainly remedy it." But he also said he stands by his record and the good he has done in seven years in office.
"I ran on the platform that I would prosecute violent criminals and repeat offenders," he said. "I’ve done that and I’m doing that. 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."
Johnson said he provided more than 30,000 records to PAPR in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for financial documents from Jan. 12, 2011, through Nov. 22, 2017. He said he did so "because I have nothing to hide."
The FOIA, however, makes clear that those records are in the public domain and he was required to provide them.