HardeeExpressway (copy) (copy)

The John Hardee Expressway to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport is named for the former Department of Transportation commissioner who pleaded guilty in January to obstructing a federal investigation. He was sentenced Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, to 18 months of probation. Photo illustration by Cindi Ross Scoppe/Staff

COLUMBIA — A 72-year-old former state Department of Transportation commissioner was charged Thursday with soliciting a prostitute, one day after avoiding prison for obstructing a federal bribery investigation.

John Hardee of Columbia was released from the Richland County jail Friday on a $465 bond — hours after his arrest Thursday evening, according to jail records. 

The misdemeanor is punishable by up to 30 days in jail. But Hardee's much bigger problem is that the arrest means he violated his 18-month probation sentence, which included 45 days of house arrest, 40 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine. 

Hardee's attorney in the federal case, Dick Harpootlian, had no comment about the new charge. 

In sentencing Hardee on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten said he was confident the two-time DOT commissioner wouldn't do anything to end up back in his courtroom. He noted receiving letters from a broad range of people, including pastors and co-workers, vouching for Hardee's character and seeking leniency.

Hardee, the son-in-law of Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman — one of the state’s most powerful politicians — had faced up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for telling a contractor, in a conversation recorded by the FBI, to delete emails about the businessman's monthly payments to Hardee.

Hardee apologized Wednesday to “my God, my family, my government and my pastor," calling his Jan. 18, 2017, instruction to the federal informant an “act of plain, dumb stupidity.”

"I haven't even had a traffic stop in over 40 years," Hardee told the judge as his wife of 32 years, Sheila, sat behind him in the courtroom. 

Harpootlian explained Hardee's obstruction crime as a moment of panic, saying he didn't even know what was written in the emails. The informant was trying to get out of his own legal troubles by pointing at Hardee, his attorney said.  

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While the unidentified South Carolina businessman told the FBI that he paid Hardee in exchange for steering government contracts his way, investigators found no actual evidence of bribery. Hardee worked as a consultant for the witness, introducing him to various government officials. But the government could not show any kickbacks or contracts resulting from his monthly payments, said Assistant U.S. Attorney DeWayne Pearson.  

Prosecutors recommended probation instead of prison on the obstruction charge, with Pearson saying he wanted to draw a line between corrupt officials who take bribes intending to betray the public and consultants like Hardee who are paid to introduce people. Such work is specifically excluded from the federal definition of bribery, the prosecutor said.

But scrutiny of those payments could continue. 

The state attorney general's office sent a letter to the State Law Enforcement Division on Thursday requesting an investigation into Hardee to determine whether he violated any state laws. 

The federal investigation involved about $27,000 in payments that Wooden called retainers, which the businessman paid Hardee between February 2014 and February 2015, during Hardee’s second stint as a DOT commissioner. Hardee was a commissioner from 1998 to 2007, then again from 2014 through 2018.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.