If you ever wondered where in the world former Midlands prosecutor Dan Johnson got the idea that it was OK to spend public money on elaborate parties, campaign-style donations to well-connected charitable causes and luxurious travel arrangements, reading his resume might have given you a hint.
Before being elected the 5th Circuit solicitor, Mr. Johnson was a top deputy to the Richland County sheriff, which gave him an opportunity to watch the freedom his boss and other S.C. sheriffs had to spend public money. Then he doubled down on those practices and double-dipped in violation of federal law.
He got away with misspending for years for the same reason so many sheriffs did, and likely still do: He had tremendous power that made people afraid to challenge him, access to huge sums of money, from multiple sources, and no one looking over his shoulder.
Mr. Johnson was held to account for his profligate and illegal spending after The Post and Courier and The State newspaper tapped a trove of expense reports and other documents that had been painstakingly unearthed by the Columbia public-interest watchdog group Protecting Public Access to Public Records. On Tuesday, a federal judge sentenced him to a year and a day in prison for misusing tens of thousands of dollars in public money to pay for flights, hotel stays and other personal expenses.
Although some of Mr. Johnson’s spending was clearly illegal, some of it was merely abusive. We suspect that, as is often the case with elected officials, he started out merely abusing his discretion, traveling at public expense for legitimate reasons but booking more expensive plane seats and hotel rooms and spending more on meals than he should have.
Nothing illegal, but stuff elected officials wouldn’t dream of doing if they thought voters would find out. Over time, as a federal prosecutor argued in a sentencing memo, Mr. Johnson came to realize that his decisions “were subject to no review.”
It would be great if we never elected people who would abuse such situations, but we do, as is clear with Mr. Johnson, and with 13 sheriffs indicted on criminal charges over the past decade, many involving money. So we need systems in place to make it more likely that we’ll notice when officials veer into abuse, even before they cross into illegal — and perhaps deter them from doing that.
The surest way to do that is with routine outside audits of their spending. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson of Charleston is among the solicitors who already subject their offices to outside audits, but that’s voluntary, not universal.
Lawmakers ought to require this of all sheriffs and solicitors; it likely would be a good investment. But if they are unwilling to spend that money, they should at least require a lot more transparency: Require both offices to post all expenses from all sources online. That is, make it easy for anyone to access the type of information that PAPR provided to the newspapers.
That information already is by law public, but it takes some doing to get your hands on it, and then review it. We suspect that if it were readily available online, a lot of armchair political critics would be happy to spend the days and weeks necessary to go through it, looking for spending that doesn’t pass the smell test.
We suspect, too, that if sheriffs and solicitors knew their spending was subject to that level of review — even if the reviewers didn’t have the power to bring charges against them — they’d be a more likely to spend taxpayers’ money the way we’d want them to. And after all, isn’t that our goal?