Crime & Courts

Former SC DOT official Hardee jailed on charges he tried to hire prostitute for $40

Former S.C. Department of Transportation board member John Hardee was jailed Monday afternoon after he was accused of violating his probation by offering a prostitute $40 for sex — just a day after his probation began.

Hardee earlier this month was given a lenient sentence — federal probation with no prison time — after the 72-year-old Columbia resident admitted he tried to destroy evidence in an FBI investigation into whether he accepted bribes as a DOT board member.

According to a petition signed by the judge who passed down that sentence, Hardee violated his probation by contacting a prostitute he found online, discussed details of their rendezvous and then showing up at her place on Pineview Drive off Garners Ferry Drive.

In reality, however, the “prostitute” was an undercover Richland County sheriff’s deputy working on an internet prostitution sting. When Hardee showed up for sex at the prostitute’s place on Aug. 8, officers inside quickly arrested him.

A condition of Hardee’s probation was that he not commit any state, federal or local crimes. Soliciting a prostitute is a misdemeanor under state law.

Authorities say Hardee visited the “prostitute” just one day after being sentenced to 18 months probation by U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten, a no-nonsense judge known for tough prison sentences.

Hardee was given a lenient sentence for evidence tampering only after Wooten noted the unusual nature of Hardee’s case.

The FBI determined that Hardee had not accepted any bribes, but that he did instruct an associate to destroy emails that contained potential evidence for the investigation. Hardee pleaded guilty to evidence tampering.

In sentencing Hardee, Wooten noted that Hardee had a spotless prior record. One of Hardee’s lawyers, Dick Harpootlian, also told the judge that he had known Hardee for some 30 years and considered him a good citizen.

But Hardee was back in court on Monday, this time before U.S. Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges, who read him the judge’s petition alleging probation violations.

“Mr. Hardee, do you understand the violations alleged against you?” Hodges asked.

“Yes, your honor,” replied Hardee, handcuffed in a white dress shirt and dress pants.

Hardee walked into the courtroom with five other men in jail jump suits who were there on various charges involving guns and drugs.

Hardee will remain behind bars until Wednesday afternoon, when Hodges will hold another hearing. At that hearing, Jack Swerling, a new lawyer hired by Hardee, will likely ask her to set bond for Hardee and release him from jail until a future hearing.

Columbia attorney Jim Griffin, who with Harpootlian represented Hardee in his initial case, said Monday that he and Harpootlian no longer represent Hardee.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Will Lewis told Hodges the government will oppose having Hardee released.

In any event, Hardee will likely be brought before Judge Wooten in the near future. At that hearing, Wooten will rule on whether Hardee violated his probation and whether he should be sent to prison.

Swerling said a federal arrest warrant had been sworn out for Hardee and he turned himself in Monday.

County law officers refused to discuss the prostitution case, but evidence in such cases usually includes audio and video recordings and text messages.

Hardee served two stints on the DOT board, from 1998-2007, and from 2014-2018. His father-in-law is state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee.

DOT board members oversee the spending of billions of dollars on state road paving and repairs.