Incumbent Dan Johnson and lawyer Byron Gipson bid for support in primary (copy)

Embattled Columbia-area prosecutor Dan Johnson (right) speaks at a candidates' forum in Columbia in May. He lost the Democratic primary to attorney Byron Gipson (left). Joseph Cranney/Staff

COLUMBIA — Dan Johnson, the Columbia-area prosecutor whose spending habits led to a federal investigation, and a key aide charged more than $43,000 in personal expenses over two years to the office, an internal audit found. 

Johnson said Friday that all office purchases deemed personal have been reimbursed, though auditors say some expenses — including office parties and gym memberships — were allowed to boost staff morale. 

The audit found $25,036 in personal and military-related charges on Johnson's office credit card. Communications director Nicole Holland charged her office credit card for $18,733 in personal expenses, auditors said. She has resigned, Johnson said in a statement.

Johnson, who oversees prosecutions for Richland and Kershaw counties as 5th Circuit solicitor, suffered a blowout defeat in June's Democratic primary after The Post and Courier first detailed his office's spending. He was defeated by attorney Byron Gipson.

They included spending on out-of-state tripsswanky club memberships and end-of-the-year office parties. He traveled to the Galapagos Islands and hired his brother to DJ office holiday parties at the cost of $6,600.

Johnson, a major in the S.C. Air National Guard, had reimbursed $15,803 in unspecified personal and military charges as of April, the audit said. Much of his expenses were airfare and hotels.

The report released Friday did not say if Holland repaid her personal expenses. The audit confirmed The Post and Courier's reporting that Holland charged for airfare and hotels for family celebrations as well as an orthodontist’s bill. The dental bill was listed on the receipt as "Tournament Sponsorship," auditors said.

Other charges by Holland included a Fitbit, hand lotion and a New York hotel. The audit also found Holland received $590 from petty cash for personal expenses that she had already charged the office on her credit card.

The State Law Enforcement Division opened a probe almost immediately after news reports about spending in Johnson's office first broke in March. The FBI has since joined the investigation.

Johnson has mostly refused to offer explanations for expenses, though he has said accusations he broke the law are unfounded. He and Holland did not return phone calls Friday.

Johnson said in his statement the audit by Forensic Research Group Inc., — ordered and paid for by his office, showed the need for "more advanced" procedures in issuing, using and reimbursing office credit cards. 

Many of Johnson's travel receipts were lost when a flash drive went missing, the audit found. The auditor also was unable to verify why the office paid $12,005 to the Hilton hotel in Columbia since 2011. Solicitor's office staff suggested it could have been to house out-of-town guests, the report said.

Still, Johnson noted the auditor identified expenditures his office could fund at its discretion.

The audit said his office could pay for food and flowers for "memorable staff dates," office parties, employee gym memberships, golf tournaments, charitable contributions and back-to-school programs.

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"I stand by my decision to fund organizations beneficial to our youth, to sponsor community events and to enhance employee well-being and morale," Johnson said.

Johnson and Holland appear to have reined in their spending since the initial news reports about their spending habits, according a recent Post and Courier review of credit card statements.

Ater combining to charge $8,800 in January and $9,500 in February, the pair have since limited their monthly payments for subscriptions to office software and newspapers, The Post and Courier found.

Auditors said they reviewed 40,000 documents obtained by watchdog group PAPR in an open-records request as well as another 150,000 pages subpoenaed by law enforcement. Auditors also interviewed 17 staffers, including Holland and Johnson.

The audit found no spending issues involving the two other 5th Circuit Solicitor employees with office credit cards — Deputy Solicitor Paulette Edwards and office manager Terri Yarnall.

Auditors suggested the office place stricter credit limits on office cards, reduce the amount of petty cash in the office, require approval of any expense over $500 and hire an experienced bookkeeper.

Johnson said he met with office staff on Friday to put those recommendations into place. 

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.