COLUMBIA — The former South Carolina transportation commissioner charged last week with soliciting a prostitute was arrested as part of a multi-agency internet sting that sought to catch "johns" and child predators, who included a deputy, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced Tuesday.
John Hardee, 72, was arrested about 5:15 p.m. Thursday after arriving at the location where he'd agreed to meet and pay $40 to an adult he thought was a prostitute. Instead, he had been communicating with an undercover officer over a "known prostitution website," according to an incident report released after the news conference.
Lott said he didn't release details amid the five-day Operation Relentless Guardian because that could have alerted other "monsters" to the sting.
"Unfortunately, some of them we work with, like a deputy sheriff at the Richland County Sheriff's Department," Lott said. "Some we go to church with. But we've got monsters who live in our community, and they prey on our children ... We are relentless in our efforts to make sure we protect our children. It's our job to protect our kids and protect our adults who are being trafficked."
Of the 28 men caught in the investigation, Lott said, the one that most sickened him was 34-year-old ex-Richland County deputy Derek Vandenham, who was arrested last Tuesday and charged with soliciting a minor and attempted criminal sexual conduct with a minor. Vandenham was immediately fired, Lott said.
He "was working on duty in my car, in my uniform, the citizens of Richland County's, and he was communicating to have sex with a 15-year-old," Lott said. "It made me sick to my stomach to know one of my deputies that I trusted and we put out here in this community was one of these monsters ... This is one of the most disgusting things I've had to deal with, to have a deputy do something like this."
Vandenham, of Lexington, could not be reached Tuesday. His home phone number had been disconnected. It's unclear if he has an attorney.
He will not be allowed a plea deal, Lott said, noting the state Criminal Justice Academy has been notified so that Vandenham will never again work in law enforcement in South Carolina.
The deputy was among 14 men who thought they were communicating with girls as young as 13. Five were arrested upon arriving to the agreed meeting spot. One arrested "traveler" drove 472 miles over seven hours from Florida, while another came from Georgia, Lott said.
"The other nine we're having warrants on them, and we'll be traveling and locking them up," Lott said. "They sent nude pictures. They solicited sex from a 15-year-old girl. They did everything you'd think a monster would."
Hardee was among 14 men dubbed "johns" who were soliciting adults, Lott said.
"He came to us. We did not go to him," he said. "When he arrived at the house, he was arrested."
Other "johns" charged with soliciting a prostitute included a 42-year-old National Guardsman and a 55-year-old American Airlines pilot. A 41-year-old mechanic was additionally charged with four counts of attempted murder after he tried to run over the four officers arresting him, Lott said.
Hardee was among two 72-year-olds arrested in the sting. The others ranged from 21 to 66 years old, according to arrest records.
The operation involved 12 law enforcement agencies, including the state attorney general's office. Its Internet Crimes Against Children task force has helped with the arrest of more than 1,000 people since 2010, state Attorney General Alan Wilson said.
"When you pedal child porn, when you promote photos, you're supporting and/or creating the market for child porn. When you travel and engage in prostitution, you're creating the market that human trafficking thrives in," he said. "This is not a victimless crime."
Hardee's arrest violated his probation. Hardee was sentenced a day earlier to 18 months probation after pleading guilty to obstructing a federal investigation by telling an FBI informant to delete emails.
The sentence included 45 days of home confinement. He'd agreed not to leave his Columbia home except for work, church, medical appointments or fulfilling his required 40 hours of community service.
Hardee did not return a text message Tuesday. His cell phone wasn't accepting voicemail.
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. Hardee worked as a consultant for the witness, introducing him to various government officials. But investigators could not show any kickbacks or contracts resulting from his monthly payments, Assistant U.S. Attorney DeWayne Pearson said in court last week.
The state Department of Transportation board will consider at its September meeting removing Hardee’s name from the Columbia airport connector.
The John N. Hardee Expressway to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport was named in 1999 and opened in 2004, during Hardee’s first of two stints as a DOT commissioner.