COLUMBIA — A former South Carolina Department of Transportation commissioner was sentenced Wednesday to 45 days of house arrest and probation for telling a contractor to delete emails amid a federal investigation into potential bribery.
John Hardee, 72, of Columbia, apologized to "my God, my family, my government and my pastor," calling his instruction to a federal informant on Jan. 18, 2017, an "act of plain, dumb stupidity."
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.
Hardee, the son-in-law of Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman — one of the state's most powerful politicians — faced up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine after pleading guilty in January to altering or destroying evidence in an attempt to obstruct an investigation.
Prosecutors recommended probation instead, 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 legal definition of bribery, he said.
Hardee's 18-month probation sentence includes 40 hours of required community service and 45 days of home confinement, though he can leave home for work, medical appointments and church. He also must pay a $1,000 fine.
U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten made clear he would never go along with probation if there were any evidence of an underlying crime, and he repeatedly asked prosecutors to verify "there was no steering, no bribes, no unlawful conduct." Still, Wooten said, telling someone to delete evidence is a serious mistake in judgment.
The investigation involved about $27,000 in retainers the businessman paid Hardee between February 2014 and February 2015, during Hardee's second stint as a DOT commissioner.
But Hardee's attorney, Jim Griffin, noted his client was first hired by the contractor in 2007, after his first DOT tenure ended. Hardee was a commissioner from 1998 to 2007, then again from 2014 through 2018.
"We never saw the incriminating emails," Griffin said. "He spoofed Mr. Hardee into believing" they were damaging.
In conversations recorded by the FBI, the informant told Hardee his business was under investigation and asked how to best explain the payments. He told Hardee he wasn't sure the FBI would believe the money covered a loan or old consulting work because of emails saying otherwise. That's when Hardee told the businessman to delete them.
"Stupidity is his motive here more than anything else," said Dick Harpootlian, Hardee's other attorney.
The federal informant was trying to get out of his own legal trouble in West Virginia when he pointed a finger at Hardee, Harpootlian said, without giving any details. Wooten described the informant only as having "some heat on him for different things."
Harpootlian, a Democratic senator from Columbia who has worked to expose corruption, told the judge he too was skeptical when Hardee asked him to take the case.
"He panicked," Harpootlian said. "He crossed the line to erase emails that showed no criminal conduct."