John Hardee (copy)

Former Department of Transportation commissioner John Hardee. File/SCDOT/Provided

COLUMBIA — A former South Carolina transportation commissioner was sentenced to seven months in federal prison Wednesday after he violated probation by soliciting a prostitute.

John Hardee was originally sentenced in August to 45 days of house arrest and probation for telling a contractor to delete emails amid a federal investigation into potential bribery when he was on the state's roads board. 

But within a matter of hours after striking his plea deal, Hardee was ensnared in an undercover operation by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department after he attempted to solicit a deputy who was posing as a prostitute. Evidence against Hardee included text messages showing him negotiating a "QV" or "quick visit" with the undercover officer.

That landed Hardee, the son-in-law of S.C. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, back in federal court for violating his parole.

Hardee was sent to jail after his soliciting prostitution arrest while he awaited his latest hearing.

Prosecutors sought up to 16 months in prison, the length of time he could have served with the original obstruction charge, arguing that Hardee had demonstrated a "remarkable lack of respect" for the court's judgment. Defense attorneys were calling for as little as three months in prison or even just a continuation of Hardee's initial probation sentence.

U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten gave Hardee seven months behind bars followed by three months of home confinement with electronic monitoring and three years of supervised release. He will be given credit for the weeks he spent in jail ahead of the hearing Wednesday. He also must pay a $1,000 fine and conduct 40 hours of community service within five months after leaving prison. 

"If you didn't learn the last time, I hope you will learn this time," Wooten told Hardee.

Hardee, who served 13 years on the commission before leaving last year, has two weeks to decide whether to file an appeal of the sentence.

During a nearly two-hour sentencing hearing Wednesday, defense attorney Jack Swerling presented testimony from forensic psychiatrist Donna Schwartz Maddox, who found that Hardee had symptoms of mild dementia and some neurocognitive difficulties, including a history of depression and anxiety.

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Those mental health issues could have made Hardee impulsive and contributed to his poor judgment, Maddox said, but she confirmed there is no question that Hardee knew that he was committing a crime.

Hardee profusely apologized to Wooten for betraying the trust he had placed in him by initially giving him a lenient probation sentence and vowed not to make a similar "mistake" again.

But Wooten said he found Hardee's conduct to constitute a "very serious violation" and could not recall any defendants in his years on the bench violating their probation sentences so quickly.

The S.C. Department of Transportation Commission voted last month to remove Hardee's name from two state roadways, including the main thoroughfare leading to Columbia Metropolitan Airport and a section of U.S. Highway 701 in Horry County.

The University of South Carolina also removed a sign honoring Hardee that was on pedestrian bridge near the school's fitness center. 

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.