Crime & Courts

‘Stupidity’ was the crime: Ex-SC DOT official Hardee gets light sentence

Ex SC DOT official Hardee gets light sentence from tough judge

“Stupidity” was the crime: Ex SC DOT official John Hardee gets light sentence from tough judge. Hardee told a man to destroy his emails because he thought they contained evidence of a crime. But there was no crime.
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“Stupidity” was the crime: Ex SC DOT official John Hardee gets light sentence from tough judge. Hardee told a man to destroy his emails because he thought they contained evidence of a crime. But there was no crime.

A federal judge on Wednesday gave former S.C. Department of Transportation commissioner John Hardee a 45-day home confinement sentence, a $1,000 fine and 40 hours of community service.

The sentence for Hardee, 72, of Columbia, for the felony crime of attempting to destroy evidence in a federal investigation was one of lighter sentences handed down in federal court in recent years, especially for a crime that potentially carried a 20-year maximum prison term and a $250,000 fine.

Near the end of the 90-minute hearing, Hardee apologized to God, his family, his church, the government and his pastor.

“I just panicked. I’m sorry,” Hardee told U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten. “I haven’t even gotten a traffic stop in 45 years. I always obey the law.”

“It was just a pure act of plain stupidity, and I apologize.”

Hardee, who as a convicted felon will be unable to vote or own a gun, also is on probation for 18 months.

Listen to our daily briefing:

In this unusual case, Hardee had asked a business associate to destroy emails because the associate told him that the FBI was investigating him (Hardee) and the emails between the two contained evidence that Hardee had committed a crime. According to evidence in the case, the associate was a South Carolina contractor who was making regular payments to Hardee.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Some background details about this story

Today’s hearing for John Hardee’s formal guilty plea and sentencing in federal court was the result of more than a year’s background negotiations and back-and-forth discussions between prosecutors and Hardee’s defense lawyers, as well as U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten.

For such a light sentence, this hearing contained a lot of detail about Hardee’s crime. That, I am told by court sources, came as a result of the judge’s insistence that more facts be put on the record for the public to know. Such a stance by Judge Wooten is consistent with his conduct on the bench, where - especially in cases involving public officials - he wants to make things as public as possible.

Defense lawyers Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin tried unsuccessfully for months to convince the government not to bring charges at all. They argued that Hardee had committed no underlying crime and although he did break the law by asking someone to delete his emails, that act was done in a moment of thoughtless panic. Unfortunately for Hardee, the FBI taped his conversation!

Harpootlian and Griffin are wily veteran lawyers; Griffin is a former federal prosecutor, and Harpootlian is a former 5th Circuit state solicitor. They lost the battle to have the charges dismissed, but Wooten’s light sentence - only a $1,000 fine and 45 days home confinement and 40 hours community service - is a big victory for Hardee and his lawyers. Having seen Judge “Tough Terry” Wooten in action over the years, I was expecting at least a $10,000 fine and 3-6 months home confinement.

By the way, veteran lawyers like Harpootlian and Griffin charge top dollar fees - in this case likely six figures or more . In this case, I’d say Hardee got his money’s worth by getting such a lightweight sentence, whatever the fee.

Actually, the emails contained no evidence of a crime, and Hardee had in fact committed no crime — except that it is a crime to destroy evidence that may be used in an FBI investigation, federal prosecutor DeWayne Pearson told Wooten.

Hardee, who had a side business as a consultant, looked suspicious to the FBI because he had received some $27,000 in about a dozen payments from the contractor over the course of a year, and they had traded numerous emails, according to evidence in the case.

According to prosecutor Pearson and Hardee’s defense lawyers, the payments were for unsecured loans and a legitimate consulting business Hardee — who has numerous business and political connections — had in which he took money for arranging for people to meet state government officials and county officials.

Hardee’s connections include his father-in-law, powerful State Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

‘Not the voice’ of a criminal

After Hardee’s associate came under investigation by the FBI, the associate — who hasn’t been identified — told the FBI that Hardee, who presumably had influence over contracts as a member of the Department of Transportation’s board of commissioners, had illegally steered construction contracts his way and that Hardee’s emails contained evidence of that.

People under investigation by the FBI, in an effort to reduce any criminal sentence, often try to tell the agency they know of people who have committed other crimes.

The FBI then put a recording device on the associate and had him meet with Hardee to discuss what to do about the FBI’s queries. During that meeting, Hardee “panicked” and told him to destroy the emails between them, Hardee’s lawyer, Dick Harpootlian told Wooten.

Hardee’s shaky voice on the FBI tape is “not the voice of a cold, calculating criminal,” Harpootlian said.

Harpootlian said people like Hardee can make money off of their political and business connections by putting clients “in the loop... This is a business model I’m not familiar with. But apparently people pay people money to make introductions.”

Prosecutor Pearson told the judge that although the FBI had worked hard on the case, its agents never found any evidence that Hardee had taken bribes or steered contracts to his client.

Pearson also cited a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court case, in which the court overturned a guilty verdict in an alleged bribery case against former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and ruled that prosecutors have to show an illegal act was done in return for money or favors.

Also representing Hardee with Harpootlian was attorney Jim Griffin of Columbia.

Griffin told the judge that the FBI’s informant tricked Hardee and made Hardee panic by telling him that his emails showed illegal activity on Hardee’s part. “He had spooked Mr. Hardee into believing that it was incriminating.”

Hardee was paid the $27,000 between February 2014 and February 2015, while he was on the DOT board, according to evidence in the case. The consultant also paid Hardee while Hardee wasn’t on the commission.

Judge: ‘Stupidity’ the motive here

Wednesday’s light sentence was noteworthy in that it was given out by Wooten, who is known for tough sentences.

In 2015, for example, Wooten rejected a no-prison sweetheart deal that federal prosecutors arranged with defense lawyers for ex-Lexington County Sheriff Jimmy Metts on a reduced charge of helping to harbor undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Wooten then sentenced Metts to a year in prison, telling Metts at a hearing that he had “violated the public’s trust.”

Wooten, who stressed that Hardee had committed a serious crime, made it clear that although Hardee’s age and some undisclosed health issues inclined him to mercy, the key factor in a light sentence was that there was no “underlying criminal conduct” on Hardee’s part.

Normally, destroying emails is “to hide unlawful conduct, but ... stupidity is more of a motive here,” Wooten said. “ There is no steering of contracts, no bribery, no corruption, according to the FBI” and thus, “he did not betray the public trust.”

Wooten had held up the case until he got more details about Hardee’s crime.

“I wanted to be darn sure I knew what this case was about,” said the judge at the hearing’s end. “Had it been more, the sentence would not be a probationary sentence.”

Griffin said, “I don’t think it was a light sentence — it was a fair sentence.”

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.
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