Crime & Courts

Feds want prison time for former SC DOT official nabbed in prostitution sting

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.

Federal prosecutors say they want to send former S.C. Department of Transportation board member John Hardee to prison for at least 10 months and up to 16 months.

Hardee, 72, of Columbia, was arrested on Aug. 8 during a Richland County Sheriff’s Department prostitution sting within days of getting a lenient, no-prison probation sentence for trying to destroy evidence in a federal corruption investigation.

“Hardee violated the terms and conditions of his probation less than 48 hours after sentencing, evidencing an appalling lack of respect for the law,” Assistant U.S. Attorney DeWayne Pearson wrote in a sentencing memo filed in U.S. District Court.

In his filing, Pearson included a number of text messages between Hardee and a Richland County undercover officer who was pretending to be a prostitute.

Hardee texted: “Saw your ad! I am not law. Would like to meet u! What is the donation?”

In another text, Hardee wrote: “What time works for u? I am not law. Are u? Just need to be careful & discreet! Text me back. Thanks.”

As Hardee drew closer to the house off Garners Ferry Road, the “prostitute” texted: “I’ll leave the side door open.”

Hardee replied: “You are alone?”

Officer: “Yeah. How far out are you?”

Hardee: ”Turning onto (street name and address) now.”

Officer: “Okay baby. The side doors unlocked.”

After quoting Hardee’s texts, prosecutor Pearson wrote, “Clearly Hardee was aware that he was engaging in illicit behavior.”

Moreover, Pearson wrote, Hardee appeared familiar with how to link up with prostitutes.

Hardee’s texts had “the ease and casual confidence of a person well versed in the activity,” Pearson wrote.

Hardee’s attorney, Jack Swerling, said Friday he had no immediate comment. “We will be filing a response,” Swerling said.

Under the terms of his probation, Hardee had promised to obey all local, state and federal laws.

On Aug. 7, when Hardee was sentenced, his lawyers at that time, Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffith, introduced letters from people who knew Hardee at his First Baptist Church — one of Columbia’s largest. They told the judge Hardee is an upright person.

Hardee himself told U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten that he is a law-abiding citizen in every way.

“I haven’t even gotten a traffic stop in 45 years. I always obey the law,” Hardee told Wooten.

At that time, even prosecutor Pearson told the judge he had no objection to Hardee’s getting probation.

Although Hardee had admitted to asking someone to destroy emails in an FBI investigation, that investigation found no crime — meaning Hardee’s cover-up effort would not have affected the outcome of the probe.

Still, Hardee was guilty of trying to obstruct a federal investigation.

Hardee’s case has attracted widespread attention because of the prominent position he once held. As a commissioner for the S.C. Department of Transportation, he influenced the spending of billions of dollars on road projects.

He is also the son-in-law of powerful S.C. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.

The case also attracted attention because Judge Wooten, who gave Hardee probation, is not known for giving lenient sentences to current and former public officials who commit crimes.

Wooten will be the judge who considers how much prison time Hardee should get for breaking his probation.

Hardee is now in jail awaiting a hearing in Wooten’s court.

On Aug. 21, U.S. Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges denied Hardee bond.

At that hearing, Hodges noted that many prostitutes are victims of human trafficking and live in bondage. She called Hardee a “danger” to the community. She said if she let Hardee out on bond, nothing might stop him from trying to hire prostitutes and, in so doing, victimizing women.

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.