Federal prosecutors talk Dan Johnson sentencing and remorseful reaction
Former 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison for stealing some $44,000 in tax dollars for personal use while he was in office.
In the sentencing hearing in federal court Tuesday, a tearful Johnson, 49, apologized for committing a felony. Then U.S. Judge Cameron McGowan Currie praised Johnson’s various career accomplishments but stressed his offenses were inexcusable and she had to send a message to the community.
“He has built up the community, but he has betrayed the community,” Currie said, noting Johnson was raised in a stable family, had gone to the Citadel and law school, had held jobs as a congressional intern and assistant prosecutor and had started programs to help young people.
“He has let down the people who trusted him,” the judge said.
An amazed Currie also recited all the various law enforcement posts Johnson had held, including captain of the Internal Affairs unit at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. “This is a person who investigates people who have done what you have done,” Currie told Johnson.
Currie also said of Johnson, who made $140,000 a year as solicitor, “This is not a situation where someone was in need of money.” And none of the expenses he put on his credit card remotely could be claimed as business expenses, she noted.
According to evidence in the case, Johnson used his office credit card to pay for romantic liaisons, travel and meals. He pleaded guilty in February.
The sentence came after prosecutors urged Currie, in a memo filed in court, to give Johnson jail time, saying he “repeatedly and consistently abused his power” by using his office credit cards for personal expenses and deserved a prison sentence.
Specifically, Assistant U.S. Attorney Will Lewis told Currie, Johnson had stolen some $44,317 in more than 100 separate instances over two years.
Public records, media revealed wrongdoing
Later in the hearing, Johnson’s attorney John Rakowsky — implying that Johnson had turned himself in — incorrectly told Currie that Johnson had himself made his misconduct public by having an audit of his office done and coming up with the amount of money he had misappropriated.
“He accepted his responsibility early,” Rakowsky said, noting Johnson had made a partial payment of the amount he had stolen before he was indicted last fall.
That misstatement brought a rebuke from prosecutor Lewis, who told the judge that it was not Johnson at all who brought his misconduct to the public’s attention.
“This was not self-policing or self-auditing,” Lewis said. “This all came out in the papers.”
In the winter and spring of 2018, a Columbia foundation — Public Access to Public Records — released tens of thousands of records of Johnson’s office spending over seven years. The Charleston Post & Courier and The State published numerous stories based on those records. The FBI and the State Law Enforcement Division began to investigate. The foundation was started by Columbia lawyer Dick Harpootlian to expose wrong-doing. He is now a state senator from Richland County.
After numerous news stories broke, Johnson repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, but only after weeks went by did he call for an audit of his office. The audit was not released until August 2018. At that time, Johnson said he had reimbursed his office some $25,000.
At Tuesday’s court hearing, lawyers acknowledged Johnson’s partial payment on the $44,000 he had misappropriated and said he still will be required to pay $19,270 in restitution.
For nearly eight years, Johnson was solicitor for South Carolina’s 5th Judicial Circuit. As the chief elected prosecutor in the circuit, Johnson oversaw a staff of some 140 employees, had a budget of $8 million and his office handled thousands of criminal cases a year in Richland and Kershaw counties.
Johnson was indicted last year on numerous charges of fraud connected with misuse of office credit cards. He also was indicted for obstruction of justice for tampering with digital evidence, but prosecutors dropped that charge Tuesday.
Rakowsky also told the judge on Tuesday that Johnson has already lost some $1.5 million in future retirement benefits from both the U.S. Air Force and the state retirement fund for solicitors.
According to evidence in the case, Johnson was double-dipping various expenses for the S.C. Air National Guard, where he served as a major in the Guard’s legal affairs unit and would be reimbursed for various travel expenses by both the Guard and the Solicitor’s Office.
Johnson, facing potential criminal charges from the military, resigned his post early this year, three years before serving the 20 years required for full retirement benefits. Johnson also was suspended from his solicitor’s post after being indicted last fall, just months short of completing the eight full years as solicitor that would have qualified him for a full state solicitor’s pension.
Johnson also voluntarily gave up his law license, Rakowsky said. The S.C. Supreme Court would likely have disbarred Johnson since he is now a convicted felon.
“He has already paid a tremendous price,” Rakowsky said.
‘I regret everything’
During the hearing, Johnson’s wife Rachel spoke for some 15 minutes, crying at times, and telling the judge what a great father to their 14-month-old daughter and husband Johnson is.
Because Johnson has lost his paycheck, he has become their daughter’s primary caregiver and the $3,000 a month she brings home from her public school teaching job is not enough to pay all the bills, Rachel Johnson told the judge.
Johnson told the judge, “I never thought I would be standing before a judge in this manner. I apologize to the community, to my family. I regret everything that has occurred... I am broken, I am embarrassed, and I’m extremely remorseful.”
Johnson told Currie that he recently has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, brought on by his year of military service in Iraq after 9/11. He did not detail what situations had caused his mental health problems but said he was now getting regular help from the Veterans Affairs Administration.
In a way, Johnson said, losing his office has forced him to deal with his mental issues, get help from the VA and caused him to appreciate his wife and daughter more.
And, Johnson said, “I’m in a position where all I do is ask for help and that is something that is very foreign to me.”
“A lot of times you learn more from your failures than your successes,” Johnson said, telling the judge, “I respect whatever Your Honor does.”
At the hearing’s end, the judge said, “I sit here and listen to this testimony and it breaks my heart. It is is required that there be justice. But it is justice with mercy.”
Having a sentence of a year and a day will allow Johnson, if he behaves himself in prison, to get a 54-day credit and be released about two months early.