Crime & Courts

Former top SC DOT official to plead guilty to obstructing federal investigation

A longtime former commissioner of the S.C. Department of Transportation, John Hardee, has agreed to plead guilty to a federal felony charge alleging he took part in a cover-up by trying to destroy evidence in a criminal investigation.

The 71-year-old Hardee of Columbia served two stints — from 1998 to 2007 and from 2014 to 2018 — on the governing commission of the state Transportation Department, helping make decisions about how to spend billions of dollars on state roads.

A former commission vice chairman, the Transportation Department named a road after Hardee — the John N. Hardee Expressway at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

Hardee also is the son-in-law of one of the state’s most powerful politicians, State Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.

According to documents filed in U.S. District Court in South Carolina, Hardee has agreed to plead guilty to an information, or federal criminal felony charge, alleging he participated in a cover-up by trying to destroy evidence that could be used in an official proceeding.

Hardee could face up to three years in prison.

The charge is accompanied by a seven-page agreement to plead guilty, signed by Hardee and his two lawyers, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, and Jim Griffin. Hardee officially will plead guilty before a federal judge at a date to be determined.

The documents on file give no details concerning the charge against Hardee.

The U.S. attorney’s office, which did not issue a press release on the guilty-plea agreement, said only, “While this is an important case for the U.S. attorney’s office, we cannot comment at this time.”

Asked if the charge against Hardee had any connection with his official duties on the Transportation Department commission, Harpootlian and Griffin declined to comment.

“Whatever we have to say, we will say in the courtroom at the appropriate time,” Harpootlian told The State on Friday.

Harpootlian, who was elected state senator in November, said he has been involved in Hardee’s case for two years, long before “I even thought about running for senator.”

Griffin said only, “This charge has nothing to do with Sen. Leatherman.”

Leatherman, head of the Senate’s powerful Finance Committee and a member of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, had no comment, a spokesman said.

Hardee’s years on the Transportation Department’s governing commission were marked by controversy.

Until 2016, transportation commissioners were appointed by legislative delegations from the state’s seven congressional districts. It was custom for the commission seats to rotate among counties in the individual congressional districts every four years.

But Hardee served almost 10 years after he was first appointed in 1998. However, in 2007, a S.C. Supreme Court decision forced Hardee off the Transportation Department commission. Greenville businessman Ed Sloan filed suit alleging Hardee had remained on the commission past the time allowed by law, and the high court agreed.

Hardee was reappointed to the commission in 2014. However, in 2016, a new law gave the governor the power to appoint commissioners.

Hardee’s most recent four-year term expired last year, and Gov. Henry McMaster declined to re-appoint Hardee to another four-year term. Instead, McMaster named John Burris, president and owner of a Lexington County real estate and construction company, to the commission.

At that time, Hardee told a State reporter, “I was term limited out, and I respect the law.”

A McMaster spokesman said Friday, “Neither the governor or any of his staff knew about the charge until the news came out today.”

A spokesman said the Transportation Department had no comment.

John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including that of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof.
Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.