Crime & Courts

Former SC prosecutor Johnson pleads guilty to scheme to steal thousands

Dan Johnson, once a rising S.C. political and law enforcement star, pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to a count of wire fraud involving a long-running scheme to use taxpayer money for his personal expenses.

The 48-year-old Johnson will be sentenced June 4. Prosecutors plan to ask that Johnson, who they say stole more than $44,000, be sentenced to 1 1/2 years in prison.

Johnson appeared to blink back tears but had no comment as he exited a courtroom in Columbia’s federal courthouse after a 45-minute hearing.

During the hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Cameron McGowan Currie took Johnson through a lengthy series of questions designed to ensure the former prosecutor knew the rights he was giving up by pleading guilty to a felony, including the right to own a gun, vote and hold elected office.

“Yes, your honor,” Johnson replied repeatedly to Currie’s questions.

“How do you wish you plead?” Currie asked.

“Guilty, your honor,” said Johnson.

Johnson entered a guilty plea to only a single count in a 36-count federal indictment

However, Currie and Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday, who summarized the government’s case, made it clear that count involved a continuous scheme to steal money from the solicitor’s office by using its credit card to pay Johnson’s personal expenses.

Johnson used an office credit card to pay for “travel, vacations, romantic liaisons and double-reimbursements for military training,” Currie said.

Standing outside the federal courthouse, U.S. Attorney Sherri Lydon said Johnson’s guilty plea was a victory for equal justice under the law.

“The message today is that the law comes in one size. One size fits all,” Lydon said. “It fits the citizen. It fits the elected official. It fits the prosecuted and the prosecutor. And it most definitely fits Dan Johnson.”

A year ago, Johnson was readying to run for a third four-year term as 5th Circuit solicitor, paid about $140,000 a year. As solicitor, Johnson had a staff of about 140, a $6 million-a-year budget, and supervised criminal prosecutions in Richland and Kershaw counties.

Then, the Public Access to Public Records advocacy group obtained thousands of records about Johnson’s spending during his seven-plus years in office. Among the records were hundreds of expenses for hotels, air travel and hotel rooms, around the nation and world.

The FBI and the State Law Enforcement Division started an investigation, and Johnson lost June’s Democratic primary to Byron Gipson, a lawyer and political newcomer who promised to restore trust to the solicitor’s office.

“Today’s plea is an important step forward in restoring public confidence in our criminal justice system,” Lydon said, adding the solicitor’s office now can “come out from under the cloud of Dan Johnson.”

Holliday told Judge Currie that Johnson used his office credit card to pay $44,317 in personal expenses in 2016 and 2017. The government will be seek restitution.

The specific count to which Johnson pleaded guilty involved four expenses — a $280 motel room in Las Vegas, a $911 motel room in Chicago, a $685 flight on a Panamanian airline and a $135 motel room in Columbia.

Had Johnson gone to trial, prosecutors were prepared to prove the other 35 counts in the indictment, Holliday said afterward. Those counts included allegations that Johnson tried to obstruct the investigation by erasing data from his office iPhone and iPad, and he stole money from the S.C. Air National Guard by submitting expenses already paid by the solicitor’s office.

Those counts will be dropped at Johnson’s sentencing hearing.

Johnson could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. However, as a first-time offender pleading guilty to a non-violent crime, he likely will not serve much time.

Prosecutors said they expect to ask that Johnson serve 1 1/2 years in prison. However, Judge Currie could sentence Johnson to probation.

State charges alleging embezzlement also are pending against Johnson. Those charges involve basically the same offenses to which Johnson pleaded guilty.

Johnson was accompanied by his lawyer, John Rakowski. Federal prosecutors on the case included Will Lewis and Alyssa Richardson.

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, and that of child killer Tim Jones.