COLUMBIA — A federal judge refused Wednesday to let a former South Carolina transportation official out of jail while he awaits his fate for violating his probation by trying to hire a prostitute, who turned out to be an undercover officer.
John Hardee, who was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair wearing an orange jumpsuit, will remain in the Lexington County jail until another judge decides whether to send him to federal prison.
The 72-year-old was arrested Aug. 8 on the misdemeanor charge just one day after getting a lenient sentence for obstructing a federal bribery investigation.
His first text to the officer he thought was a prostitute came within nine hours of him leaving the federal courthouse on a sentence of 18 months of probation — which included 45 days of house arrest — and promising he was a law-abiding citizen who would never do anything to require him to be back in a courtroom again, prosecutors explained Wednesday to U.S. Magistrate Shiva Hodges.
After a series of text messages between the officer and Hardee, he was arrested at 4:20 p.m. upon showing up for what he thought was the arranged $40 "QV special," which stood for "quick visit." Other options were "80 hh 120 full," which stood for $80 for a half hour and $120 for an hour, said Assistant U.S. Attorney DeWayne Pearson.
That he never questioned the lingo used in the texts, and indeed used it himself — beginning by asking "What is the donation?" — demonstrates he "seems to have a keen understanding of the process," Pearson said.
Hardee's attorney, Jack Swerling, countered there's nothing in the texts to indicate Hardee had done this before, to which Hodges replied "I've been a judge for nine years, and those are novel terms to me."
Swerling argued Hardee thought house arrest meant he was essentially on an overnight curfew, unable to leave the house between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Probation officer Duane Newson confirmed he told Hardee he would have to remain home between those hours. He said he gave the instructions before reviewing the sentence, which hadn't yet been entered into the system.
But Pearson said Judge Terry Wooten's explanation to Hardee at sentencing was clear. He was not supposed to leave his house except to go to work, church, medical appointments or see his attorney. And he could not violate the law again.
"There are no additional terms that will work to keep Hardee in line," Pearson said. "He immediately flouted the rules of the court ... and immediately got caught up in a prostitution sting."
Hardee was arrested as part of a multi-agency internet sting that sought to catch “johns” and child predators. He was among 14 "johns" who were trying to solicit adults, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said at a news conference last week.
Swerling asked the judge to let Hardee out on house arrest with electronic monitoring. Hardee, who served two stints as a Department of Transportation commissioner, was arrested Monday on the probation violation charge after spending last week at a mental health facility for anxiety and severe depression and getting fired from his 23-year job at Lamar Advertising. He's had back and knee surgery and is in a wheelchair because he's fallen, and he's not getting pain medication in jail, Swerling said.
When Hardee will return to Wooten's courtroom to learn his fate is unknown, though a hearing is expected to be set within a couple of weeks.
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 to delete emails about the businessman’s monthly payments to Hardee.
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. Investigators could not show any kickbacks or contracts resulting from his monthly payments, Pearson said in court earlier this month.