Crime & Courts

Ex SC DOT official Hardee called “danger” to community, ordered to stay in jail

A federal magistrate judge said Wednesday that people like John Hardee who try to hire prostitutes “pose a danger” to the community because they support the sexual enslavement of young people in the human trafficking trade.

That was a main reason why U.S. Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges said she was refusing to grant bail to Hardee, a former S.C. Department of Transportation board member, who wanted to be released on bond until a future hearing on whether his federal probation should be revoked.

“The suggestion that there is some sort of victimless crime associated with prostitution, I cannot accept,” said Hodges, just after a prosecutor argued that Hardee had hired prostitutes before. “The danger to the community is grave.”

Now Hardee, who once influenced billions of dollars in spending on road projects, will remain in jail until his next hearing, likely to be held within three weeks.

Earlier this month, the 72-year-old Columbia resident was given a light, no-prison sentence of 18-months probation with home detention after pleading guilty to tampering evidence in an FBI investigation into whether Hardee accepted bribes as a DOT official.

But on Aug. 7, within eight hours of telling U.S. Judge Terry Wooten that he always obeys the law and would not get into trouble while on probation, Hardee got into trouble again.

That same day, Hardee was on his cell phone negotiating payment for sex with someone he thought was a prostitute, assistant U.S. Attorney DeWayne Pearson told the magistrate judge Wednesday.

In reality, the “prostitute” was a deputy in a sex sting operation conducted by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. Hardee was arrested and charged with solicitation of a prostitution.

“He is a danger to the community in that he cannot follow the law,” Pearson told Hodges, urging her to keep Hardee in jail. “This is a clear violation of his probation. ... There’s no way to keep Mr. Hardee in line.”

Under the rules of his probation, Hardee agreed not to violate state, local or federal criminal laws. He was only to leave his house for work or visits to doctors, lawyers or church. Hiring a prostitute is a misdemeanor state crime.

Pearson told Hodges that Hardee appeared very familiar with the lingo and the underground process of finding and hiring a prostitute online — making the case that Hardee has hired prostitutes before.

“At no time did he ask what the terms meant ... or say, ‘I’m new to this’,” Pearson said, calling Hardee’s actions a “blatant flouting of the law ... He seems to have a very keen understanding” of online prostitution and “is not a person to be trusted.”

For example, Pearson said, Hardee used the term “raincoat” as a synonym for a condom and “40Q.V.” for a “quick visit” for which he was willing to pay $40.

Other terms used in Hardee’s text message exchanges were “80hh,” meaning $80 for a half hour, and “120full,” meaning $120 for an entire hour.

Magistrate Judge Hodges, who appeared amazed at Pearson’s descriptions, asked him, “Is there anything else that would indicate this is not Mr. Hardee’s first rodeo?”

Pearson then explained that Hardee did not ask questions when the purported prostitute told him to go to a Bojangles parking lot before sending him the address of the place where they were to have sex.

Prostitutes often send clients to a public place so they can have someone look them over and determine whether they are dangerous, Pearson explained.

Once Hardee got to Bojangles, he texted the undercover agent, “I’m here — text me the address.”

When Hardee’s attorney, Jack Swerling, told Hodges, “I don’t think there’s anything here that indicates he has engaged in this type of conduct before,” the magistrate judge didn’t buy it.

“I have been a judge nine years, and this is the first time I have seen these terms,” Hodges said.

Swerling argued that Hardee was 72 and in bad physical and mental health. He offered for Hardee to stay under house arrest at his Columbia home with an electronic monitor on to ensure he would behave himself.

Hardee appeared in court in a jail jump suit and in a wheelchair pushed by a U.S. Marshall. He recently spent a week at Three Rivers Behavorial Health, a private psychiatric facility near Columbia where he was treated for depression, Swerling said.

Hardee has hurt his back “sleeping on concrete” at the Lexington County jail, Swerling said.

Also, Swerling told the magistrate judge, Hardee has just been fired from his position at Lamar Advertising, a major billboard company.

Hodges said when Judge Wooten released Hardee on probation, Hardee knew he shouldn’t break the law, but that he did anyway.

Just a few hours after Wooten let Hardee out on probation, “he was plotting to commit more crimes,” Pearson said.

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.