Cindi Ross Scoppe

Is Dan Johnson breaking the law? Not necessarily. Abusing his office? Without a doubt

Dan Johnson was first sworn in as 5th Circuit solicitor, covering South Carolina’s Richland and Kershaw counties, in 2011.
Dan Johnson was first sworn in as 5th Circuit solicitor, covering South Carolina’s Richland and Kershaw counties, in 2011. FILE PHOTOGRAPH/THE STATE

DURING HIS first year as governor, Henry McMaster spent 26 days out of state on the government dime. All but 10 of those days were in Washington, and most of the trips lasted a single day. None was out of the country. His most exotic destination? Aspen, Colo., for two days at a Republican Governors Association quarterly meeting.

Attorney General Alan Wilson used public funds to take two out-of-state trips in 2016 and 2017, both to Washington for meetings of the National Association of Attorneys General. He was gone for a total of four days.

Chief Justice Don Beatty probably spent about the same amount of time as the attorney general out of state on public funds: He was reimbursed $3,371 for out-of-state travel for fiscal year 2016-17 and $1,850 the previous year, before he was elevated to chief justice.

Rick Hubbard, who took office as the solicitor for Lexington and several smaller counties in January 2017, spent five days in Alabama and Mississippi in February 2017 working on the gruesome Tim Jones murder case. Other than that, he hasn’t left the state at public expense.

Across the river in Richland County, 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson has turned out to be much more of a jet-setter.

ScoppeSmileVERTical (5)
Cindi Ross Scoppe

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These four top officials did less government-funded travel than one solicitor

SC travel reimbursements reports from the comptroller general’s office

Some officials use their campaign accounts to cover travel expenses. Here why that can be a problem

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As my colleague John Monk reports, Mr. Johnson spent about 70 days out of state in 2016 and the first nine months of 2017. That’s about four days every month. He traveled to Amsterdam, Colombia, Ecuador, Poland, London, Qatar and the Galapagos Islands, the natural paradise off South America that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the United States, Mr. Johnson visited Cleveland, Miami, Montgomery, Las Vegas, Washington and College Station, Texas.

And that might not even be a complete list. Those travels are reflected in credit card bills and taxi and other receipts released by the nonprofit Public Access to Public Records, which so far has released only about a third of the 40,000 documents it received under South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act. Who knows what else will turn up.

Let’s assume that all of the travel was related to Mr. Johnson’s job as solicitor. It’s still a problem. A huge problem. An abuse of office problem. A problem of the sort that elections are meant to correct.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible at this point to tell whether all of this travel was legal — i.e., whether it was related to his job as solicitor, and not personal travel or travel for the National Guard, which should have been paid for with something besides his solicitor’s office credit card — because Mr. Johnson has refused to discuss the purpose of the trips. Any of the trips.

It was striking to watch his non-response change as Mr. Monk and reporters from Charleston’s Post and Courier have continued digging through the trove of documents. What started out as “to my knowledge, no federal, state, Richland or Kershaw County appropriated tax dollars have been used inappropriately” — carefully chosen weasel words, as I’ll explain in a moment — morphed into “at no time did I intend for office funds to be used to pay for personal expenses.”

Note the word “intend,” which implies “intentional,” which any lawyer, and certainly any solicitor, knows is a vital element in many criminal charges.

But let’s assume that all of the travel was related to Mr. Johnson’s job as solicitor. (And let’s set aside, for today, all the other questionable spending he’s been doing.)

It’s still a problem. A huge problem. Maybe not a legal problem, since, as I have explained ad nauseam, there’s a huge difference between illegal and wrong. But a right-and-wrong problem. An abuse of office problem. A problem of the sort that elections are meant to correct.

Unless Mr. Johnson had to go to Las Vegas and London and Qatar and the Galopagos to personally interview witnesses in monstrously important criminal cases he was prosecuting, this clearly was a public official squandering public money.

Unless Mr. Johnson had to go to Las Vegas and London and Qatar and the Galopagos to personally interview witnesses in monstrously important criminal cases he was prosecuting — and we know he didn’t, since he’s not known for even prosecuting cases himself — this clearly was a public official squandering public money. Ad nauseam.

You know how upset you get when county council members head down to Charleston for a three-day retreat on your dime? Or you pay for legislators to attend meetings of the National Conference of State Legislators? This is like doing that every month. Except with your passport.

It’s like the governor flying off on the state plane for a National Governors Association meeting. To exotic locations. Every month. Or the chief justice meeting with the National Conference of Chief Justices. Every month. Or the attorney general spending our money to attend meetings the National Association of Attorneys General. Every month.

Mr. Johnson, being just one of 16 solicitors in South Carolina, with jurisdiction in two counties, isn’t anywhere near as important as our one governor. Or our one chief justice. Or our one attorney general.

Only Mr. Johnson, being just one of 16 solicitors in South Carolina, with jurisdiction in two counties, isn’t anywhere near as important as our one governor. Or our one chief justice. Or our one attorney general.

Mr. Johnson’s supporters argue that his travel was funded not through “tax money” but “public money,” which probably means court fees. As if the distinction makes a bit of difference. It certainly doesn’t legally. It shouldn’t politically.

Mr. Johnson says the document dump was timed to undermine his re-election bid. If so, those doing the timing are imbeciles; it’s a good six months too late. Because all the damaging documents in the world won’t touch him as long as no one runs against him.

I hope there’s still time for someone to challenge him, and at least force him to answer for what is by all appearances appallingly abusive spending. But the clock is ticking: Filing closes a week from Friday, and the Democratic primary — probably the only place he would be vulnerable — is June 12.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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