Crime & Courts

Richland prosecutor often out of office, trotting nation and world on public tab

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson isn’t seen much in courtrooms.

Johnson's assistant prosecutors try nearly all the criminal cases in his judicial circuit, made up of Richland and Kershaw counties.

Instead, Johnson often is traveling.

In 2016 and the first nine months of 2017, Johnson spent more than 70 days on the road, according to public spending records from his office.

During those 21 months, Johnson traveled to Amsterdam; Colombia; Ecuador; the Galapagos Islands, off South America; London; Poland; and Qatar. Within South Carolina, he went to Charleston and Myrtle Beach. Elsewhere in the United States, Johnson traveled to Cleveland; College Station, Texas; Miami; Montgomery, Ala.; Las Vegas; and Washington, D.C.

Those travels are reflected in credit card bills, and taxi and other receipts from Johnson's office released by Public Access to Public Records, a nonprofit that obtained the records through South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act law.

Johnson declined to answer specific questions Friday about his travels.

“We are in the process of conducting an internal investigation and will respond to these and other questions regarding specific expenditures at the appropriate time," the Democrat said in a statement. "I reiterate that at no time did I intend for office funds to be used to pay for personal expenses.”

Some of Johnson's travel could have been professional. Prosecutors sometimes attend legal meetings. And some of the travel could be related to Johnson's part-time position in the S.C. National Guard.

Johnson, who is seeking his third four-year term as chief prosecutor this year, also might have traveled more. Available records don’t include several months in 2017.

Some of Johnson's travel also could have involved fun.

Last Sept. 29, Johnson’s office credit card was billed $798 for a three-night stay at Homewood Suites, a hotel in College Station, Texas, just a mile from Texas A&M. The University of South Carolina football team played Texas A&M on Sept. 30, losing 24-17. Johnson, who played college football for The Citadel, left the hotel on Oct. 2.

Records of that hotel stay are among 12,000 records of public spending by Johnson's office that have been been released thus far by the Columbia nonprofit PAPR. PAPR plans to release an additional 28,000 spending records from Johnson's office soon, possibly as early as next week. The records are in no chronological or classification order, which is the way that Johnson's office released them, PAPR officials say.

None of the several thousand records viewed thus far by The State show any money repaid to the prosecutor's office by Johnson.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has requested that SLED conduct a preliminary investigation into spending in Johnson's office.

Some months, Johnson spent thousands of dollars of public money on travel-related expenses, the records indicate.

For example, the records show that in July and early August 2017, Johnson’s spending and travel included:

$2,266 for a five-day stay at the National Harbor Hotel at Oxon Hill, Md., from July 7-12

$623 for an event at Hanks Oyster Bar in Alexandria, Va., on July 10.

$1,588 for a five-day stay at the Cleveland Westin in Cleveland, Ohio, from July 17-22, including $626 for a rental car.

$2,780 for an approximately 11-day stay at the Renaissance in Montgomery, Ala., from July 23 to Aug. 5.

No details were available for any of the travel.

However, some of the records indicate that, on the same day that Johnson was traveling out of the country, someone else was using the same prosecutor's office credit card to travel in the United States.

For example, Johnson was in Colombia, Ecuador, and the Galapagos Islands from Feb. 17-26, 2017. His stay in the Galapagos — at the Golden Bay Ventas luxury hotel — cost $912.

From Feb. 16-20, 2017, the same credit card was used to pay for a stay at the Hampton Inn in Mountain View, Calif., according to a credit card statement.

Johnson’s travels in 2016 and the first nine months of 2017 included:

January 2016 Qatar; Las Vegas; Charleston; Las Vegas; Tempe, Ariz.; and Las Vegas

February 2016: Las Vegas

August 2016: Minneapolis, Minn.

January 2017: Krakow, Poland; England; and the Washington, D.C., area

February 2017: Charleston; Ecuador; the Galapagos Islands; Bogota, Columbia; and Miami

July 2017: Oxon Hill, Md.; Washington and the Virginia suburbs; Cleveland, Ohio; and Montgomery, Ala.

September 2017: College Station, Texas