Crime & Courts

SC Solicitor Johnson charged with fraud by federal grand jury

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, one of 16 state prosecutors in South Carolina, was indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury on 26 fraud charges connected to allegations that he and a former top aide misappropriated more than $55,000 in taxpayer money.

Indicted along with Johnson was his top bookkeeper and communications director, Nicole Holland, who handled tens of thousands of dollars in Johnson’s office every month.

The two were charged with 26 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud, conspiracy and theft of government money, according to the indictment. The charges carry penalties of 10 to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for each count

Johnson and Holland misused office credit cards including personal expenses for “travel, vacations, romantic liaisons, medical expenses and double-reimbursements for military training,” according to the 10-page indictment.

Johnson and Holland “embezzled, stole and obtained by fraud” at least $5,000 in federal money, the indictment said. Johnson’s office receives tens of thousands of dollars in federal money through drug forfeiture programs and various grants, according to the indictment.

Johnson is a major in the S.C. Air National Guard and, while solicitor, has been deployed abroad. The Air Force has declined to answer questions from The State about Johnson’s spending and whether he was reimbursed by the military.

Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, is expected to issue an executive order suspending Democrat Johnson from office.

Johnson could not be reached for comment.

Johnson, 47, is the chief law enforcement officer in Richland and Kershaw counties. His office, which at one time had 42 prosecutors and nine investigators, has a budget of more than $8 million a year. In recent months, about half a dozen prosecutors have resigned or retired as news reports raised questions about Johnson’s handling of public money.

South Carolina’s 16 solicitors make $141,300 a year. They have the final say-so in deciding who to hire and who to fire in their offices. They also help determine what criminal cases go to trial and when. There also are few checks on how solicitors spend public money.

Tuesday’s indictment capped a six-month-long fall from grace for Johnson.

In early March, Johnson was running unopposed for a third four-year term as solicitor in a state where incumbents nearly always win re-election.

But then, following the release of a trove of public spending records from Johnson’s office for the past eight years obtained by the PAPR open-government group, news organizations, including The State and Post and Courier, began publishing articles questioning Johnson’s spending. Many of the records concerned Holland’s and Johnson’s monthly credit card statements, which federal prosecutors used as a guide to build their cases.

The articles showed Johnson had spent large sums on parties; perks for office staff, including free gym memberships; and personal expenses for Johnson and Holland, including extensive travel.

Johnson also spent tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on community causes, many focused on youth. Johnson said that spending helped youths stay out of trouble and avoid getting caught up in the criminal justice system.

In recent years, Johnson spent weeks out of his office, using his office credit card to travel, including to the Galapagos Islands, off the western coast of South America, and to casino complexes around the United States. Johnson declined to explain his spending and travel in any detail.

After the disclosures, the FBI and the State Law Enforcement Division began to investigate spending by Johnson and key members of his staff.

In late March, Byron Gipson, a Columbia attorney, announced he would oppose Johnson in June’s Democratic primary for solicitor. Johnson waited until the last minute to file for re-election, announcing there would be an audit of his office’s spending. Meanwhile, numerous lawyers who had contributed heavily to Johnson’s campaigns deserted him, contributing more than $60,000 to Gipson.

On March 30, The State published a story saying Holland, 49, who oversaw spending in Johnson’ office, had a history of financial woes, including writing fraudulent checks and forgery. She recently resigned.

On June 1, The State published a story about former female lawyers in Johnson’s office who said he had sexually harassed them repeatedly.

On June 12, Johnson suffered a resounding defeat at the polls, losing the Democratic primary by a nearly 3-to-1 margin to Gipson.

In mid-August, Johnson released an audit by a private firm of his office’s finances. It found Johnson had spent approximately $25,000 of taxpayer money on “military or personal” matters. Johnson said he had paid back the entire amount.

The audit also found Johnson’s office had no policy governing credit-card use and many records for Johnson’s travel were missing.

The documents that news organizations used for most of their stories about Johnson’s spending had been obtained through Freedom of Information requests by a Columbia-based public interest group, Public Access to Public Records, or PAPR, funded by attorney Dick Harpootlian.

Columbia lawyer John Meadors, a petition candidate, is also running for the solicitor’s job in the November election.