Crime & Courts

Top aide to SC Solicitor Johnson pleads guilty; Johnson to face more charges

Nicole Holland appeared in Federal Court Thursday. 11/1/18
Nicole Holland appeared in Federal Court Thursday. 11/1/18

Nicole Holland, who controlled credit cards in suspended 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson’s office, pleaded guilty Thursday to two charges of mail and wire fraud in federal court in Columbia.

In her plea, Holland, 49, formerly one of Johnson’s top staffers, agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

Also, federal prosecutors said at Holland’s 55-minute guilty-plea hearing Thursday morning that they intend to bring more charges against Johnson.

One new charge likely will be an obstruction-of-justice charge, assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday told U.S. District Court Judge Cameron McGowan Currie in open court. Holliday told Currie the charge will be in an indictment to be issued later in November. He did not give a date.

Holland’s plea means she could testify against Johnson in any upcoming trial. Numerous other federal charges against Holland, including theft of federal funds and conspiracy, were dropped.

Johnson, who was at Thursday’s hearing, has contended he is innocent. He also has issued statements asserting he has paid back any disputed funds.

Following the hearing, Johnson declined comment. But his attorney, John Rakowsky, told The State, “We’re getting ready for trial.”

Currie set Feb. 11 as the date for Johnson’s trial and said it could last two weeks.

On Sept. 18, Holland and Johnson were indicted by a federal grand jury on multiple charges, including conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and theft of federal funds.

Holland, who started work at the solicitor’s office in 2011 just after Johnson was elected, resigned her position in March. She controlled tens of thousands of dollars of spending on office credit cards each year, including an office credit card she used for her own spending.

The specific fraud counts to which Holland pleaded guilty Thursday involved $2,700 in hotel bills in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and a $1,020 orthodontist’s bill, assistant U.S. Attorney Alyssa Richardson told the judge. The orthodontist’s bill actually paid for a nephew’s dental work, said Richardson.

Both bills had been charged to Holland’s BankofAmerica office credit card, Richardson told the judge.

Holland had written “tournament sponsorship” on the credit card statement at the line containing the orthodontist’s bill, Richardson said.

Each charge that Holland pleaded guilty to carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. But as a cooperating defendant, she will likely get substantially less time.

The 10-page indictment said Johnson used “public funds to finance a private lifestyle” and “abused his position as elected solicitor to siphon money” from his own office.

Holland, who was Johnson’s communications director, “used her position to both aid and abet her boss ... and to personally siphon public funds for private use,” the indictment said.

Prosecutors alleged Johnson and Holland schemed to “enrich themselves” by charging personal expenses on credit cards issued to the solicitor’s office.

“These personal expenses would be reflected alongside business expenses on various Bank of America statements and then paid in full with solicitor’s office funds,” their indictment said. “The personal expenses included travel, romantic liaisons, medical expenses and double-reimbursements for military training.”

The alleged military reimbursements were a reference to Johnson, who is a major in the S.C. Air National Guard. It is a part-time position. But, during his tenure as solicitor, Johnson has been deployed abroad on military missions.

Holland has a history of financial woes, including being convicted of writing fraudulent checks and forging checks from 1991 to 1999. All were misdemeanors. But, under federal rules, the fact that she has a criminal history will weigh against her when it comes time for a judge to pronounce sentence.

Holland declined comment, but her attorney, Clarence Davis, told a reporter he is glad that nearly all the charges, except two, were dropped against his client.

Davis also said Holland’s knowledge of Johnson’s activities likely is limited. “She may not have knowledge of everything including alleged romantic liaisons,” Davis said.

Prosecuting the case with Holliday and Richardson is assistant U.S. Attorney Will Lewis.

Johnson and Holland also have been charged with embezzlement by a state grand jury. Johnson also faces state charges of misconduct in office.

Up to last February, Johnson seemed assured of winning a third four-year term as solicitor for Richland and Kershaw counties in the upcoming Nov. 6 election.

There are only 16 solicitors, or chief prosecutors in South Carolina. Each oversees a multi-county court circuit and controls nearly every criminal case brought in that circuit. Johnson’s office had a budget of some $8 million in federal, state and local funds and a staff of about 140 employees, including more than 35 prosecutors.

As solicitor, Johnson made about $140,000 a year. That salary now has been suspended.

The FBI began investigating Johnson after a Columbia-based foundation, Public Access to Public Records, earlier this year released thousands of records of Johnson’s office spending dating back to 2011, when he first took office. Those records included credit card statements.

In June, Johnson’s bid for a third term in office was crushed when he was overwhelmingly defeated in the Democratic primary by Columbia attorney Byron Gipson.

Gipson faces Columbia attorney John Meadors, a petition candidate, in Tuesday’s general election.

Suspended 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson leaves federal courthouse Tuesday, October 2 after being released on bond.