Crime & Courts

Richland SC prosecutor Johnson's office gushed money for charities, petty cash

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson's office does more than prosecute criminals.

One bank account under Johnson's control shows the prosecutor's office has been a generous donor to local charities and causes as the solicitor has given money to little-known foundations and other groups, as well as larger nonprofits.

From 2012 though September 2017, roughly $14,200 from that account has gone to various groups, in amounts that range from $1,960 to the Columbia City Ballet to $250 to a golf tournament at St. Johns Baptist Church to $100 for a Kershaw Christmas parade. The account also sent $1,480 to the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and its alumnae chapter.

The money for the charities came from a Southern First bank account that holds fees that Johnson's office receives for prosecuting people who pass checks that bounce.

State law authorizes solicitors to set up units in their offices to prosecute cases of worthless checks and assist victims in getting restitution. According to that law, the fees generated by the worthless-check unit must be used "to defray the costs of operating" the unit and "to pay the normal operating expenses" of the solicitor's office.

Checks from the worthless-check account also have been written for cash to some of the employees in Johnson's office with little or no explanation of what that cash was for.

For example, one solicitor's employee has received roughly $7,200 in more than 20 checks from the account since 2012. On each message line is the notation "Petty cash." The checks range in amounts from $150 to $750. One $600 check has the notation "solicitor's conference" on it next to the words "Petty Cash." No other explanation is given.

Another employee, an investigator, received $1,750 from the account in various checks marked "petty cash."

The State asked Johnson and his assistant, Nicole Hollard, for more information about the payments to the charities and individuals from the "worthless check" account. No reply had been received by late Monday afternoon.

Some of the groups that have received money from fees generated by Johnson's worthless check account: Allen University: $1,500; 100 Greater Black Men, $1,000; Girls on the Run, $500; Midlands Baptist Association, $300; Richland County CASA foundation, $250; Alzheimer's Association, $250; S.C. General Assembly Women's Caucus, $200; and the Korean Fall Festival, $100.

"We sponsor community events," Johnson said earlier this month. "We spend money with organizations that are helping our youth. "

Johnson added his office's goal is to have a "long-term proactive partnership" with "the community,. and public and private organizations."

One $70 check, written to the now-closed Harper's restaurant was, for "2 apple pies," according to a notation on the check. Another $150 check was written to Tastee Creations for "Valentines Day Cupcakes."

Ethics watchdog John Crangle said Johnson's use of the worthless-check account raises two key questions: Is contributing to charities permitted under the worthless-check law, and is more documentation required for writing checks to employees than just the words "petty cash"?

"If there is no law requiring him to explain what this cash is for, why doesn't he just as a matter of procedure and prudence indicate what these checks are being written for?" Crangle said. "Is it wise management for him to be doing what he's doing? It's only to be expected if you write checks for 'petty cash,' you should have documentation indicating what it's for."

The records released Monday are the latest batch of documents detailing spending in Johnson's office to be made public by the Columbia nonprofit Public Access to Public Records.

Previous disclosures by PAPR — concerning Johnson's travel and other expenses — triggered a request by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson for the State Law Enforcement Division to review the records for possible wrongdoing.

"We ... will respond to ... questions regarding specific expenditures at the appropriate time," Johnson said last week.