Crime & Courts

Richland prosecutor spent $25,000 on personal items but says he has paid it back

Richland County prosecutor Dan Johnson spent $25,036 of taxpayer money on “military or personal” matters, according to an audit of spending in the prosecutor’s office released Friday.

As of April 16, Johnson had reimbursed his office $15,803 of that amount, the audit says. However, in a letter accompanying the audit, Johnson said he has paid back the entire $25,036.

The long-awaited audit, commissioned by Johnson in March after news reports raised questions about the prosecutor’s handling of taxpayer money, was released Friday.

Johnson’s spending also is being investigated by the FBI. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office had no comment Friday on that investigation.

In a letter accompanying the audit, Johnson also said he has accepted the resignation of longtime staffer Nicole Holland. Holland oversaw credit cards in the prosecutor’s office and was in charge of paying credit card companies each month.

The audit said Holland made “a large number of charges for personal items and travel as well as a significant number of un-receipted charges.” Holland also had receipts for charges but the receipt “was not the actual purpose of the charge,” the audit said.

Holland charged $15,121 on her office-issued credit card for personal expenses, including $1,020 for dental work and $2,893 for hotel bills for family members, the audit said. From 2011 to through 2018, Holland spent $62,129 on various items at Walmart, Target and Dollar Stores, the audit said.

Johnson is a major in the S.C. Air National Guard and, while solicitor for Richland and Kershaw counties, was deployed abroad. That, apparently, is when he used his office credit card for military spending and did not reimburse his office account. The Air Force has declined to answer questions from The State newspaper about Johnson’s military reimbursements.

Some initial audit findings include:

Johnson’s office had no policy regarding how credit cards were to be used and no limits on how much an employee could purchase, other than the limit set by the credit card company. No approvals were required. Credit card monthly limits were $20,000.

Most printed records and a computer flash drive documenting years of Johnson’s travel are missing. Credit card receipts sometimes showed Johnson appeared “to be in two locations at the same time.” The audit indicates Johnson’s card “had been breached and a new card was issued.”

During 2016 and 2017, Holland charged, on average, $7,670 a month on her prosecutor’s office credit card. Johnson charged $4,593 a month.

Some $12,005 in unexplained charges were made by Johnson’s office at the Columbia downtown Hilton Hotel. There was “generally” no documentation to explain the charges.

Although news reports questioned Johnson’s spending of tens of thousands of dollars on various service groups, social programs and perks for staffers including free gym memberships, the audit found Johnson had the authority to use the money in that way.

South Carolina doesn’t require its 16 elected solicitors to have any systematic method of accounting for public money.

However, the audit recommended the prosecutor’s office hire an “experienced bookkeeper” to oversee all spending and accounts. The solicitor should receive a report on all account balances weekly and a monthly report on all spending.

In a one-page letter accompanying the audit, Johnson — who lost a bid for a third term as prosecutor in June’s Democratic primary — said the audit “illustrates the need for more advanced accounting and bookkeeping procedures” including “use and reimbursement processes regarding office credit cards.”

Johnson is the chief prosecutor in Richland and Kershaw counties.

His office has a budget of some $8 million a year and a staff of some 140, including about 40 attorneys. The office oversees nearly all criminal prosecutions, from drunken-driving to murder cases, in those two counties. Johnson’s office also receives numerous fines and fees generated from various court-related activities, including narcotics seizures.

Public interest group released office records

The audit’s release was the latest blow to Johnson’s career.

Only six months ago, Johnson was a popular two-term incumbent expected to cruise to a third four-year term in the $141,300-a-year prosecutor’s job.

In February and March, however, PAPR, a public interest group started by Columbia lawyer and former 5th Circuit solicitor Dick Harpootlian, released more than 40,000 records of Johnson’s office spending — from 2010 to November 2017. Those records included credit card and bank statements, hotel bills, and receipts for luxury rental limos.

Subsequently, news accounts reported possible misspending involving public money during Johnson’s eight years in office. Those reports triggered investigations by the FBI and the State Law Enforcement Division.

Throughout the spring, new news reports revealed details of how Johnson and his office spent tens of thousands of dollars of public money on questionable items.. That spending included pricey office parties, free gym memberships to staffers, and national and international travel by Johnson, including visits to casinos and nightspots.

In late March, veteran Columbia lawyer Byron Gipson filed to run in the Democratic primary for solicitor. Also in late March, SLED and FBI agents questioned Johnson’s staff,and Johnson hired two criminal defense attorneys — Wally Fayssoux of Greenville and Baity Ashmore of Spartanburg.

In early April, The State reported that Holland, who had control over office credit cards, had a history of financial woes, including convictions for writing fraudulent checks and forging checks. Still, Johnson let her handle and use his office’s credit cards.

In early June, The State reported that two female lawyers, who had worked in Johnson’s office, said they regularly had been sexually harassed by Johnson. Johnson denied the allegations.

In the June 12 primary, Democratic primary voters overwhelmingly voted for Gipson, who crushed Johnson by an almost 3-to-1 margin.

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