THE VIDEO OF Solicitor Dan Johnson talking about his efforts to “get to the bottom of this stuff” is one of the most amazing political performances I have ever witnessed. This guy is a great politician.
He is so incredibly calm. And likeable; I had forgotten how likeable he can be. And reasonable. Most impressive: He doesn’t seem at all defensive — or offensive. (The video is right above the headline; if you haven’t watched it yet, you really ought to.)
Mr. Johnson has hired a forensic auditor to go through the books, he tells reporters after filing for his third term as solicitor of Richland and Kershaw counties. Of course his office will pay for it, he says; he doesn’t have that kind of personal money. But the audit simply must be done.
“I’ve got to get to the bottom of it,” he explains, oh, so sympathetically. “I’ve got to figure out what’s going on in there and make it right if there’s something not right. And truth be told, heck, I wish, if I could have gotten the county to give us an accountant from the beginning — some bow tie-wearing guy — I would have done it. But we don’t have that.”
An aide tries to guide him away from reporters, but he keeps engaging with them, explaining how he just wants to understand what happened.
“If we’ve missed some stuff, if our paperwork isn’t right, then we need to get it right,” he says. Then, the coup de grace. “There’s a lot of documents that I’d like to actually see,” he says, before telling reporters that “I respect what y’all do,” and “I get it,” but “I’d like to go through it and get to the bottom of it so I know the facts.”
And who could argue with wanting to see all the documents, to understand what was done?
Who, indeed? Except those who remember precisely what “this stuff” is that he’s trying to get to the bottom of: his own excessive spending.
“This stuff” being his trips to Las Vegas and London and Qatar and the Galopagos Islands, and other exotic locations. More than 70 days of out-of-state travel in just 17 months. Paid for with public funds. And paying his brother $3,000 to perform as a disc jockey at parties, plus at least $3,600 for travel. With public funds. And private gym memberships for his staff, and the political campaign-style donations to churches and charities and sororities. With public funds. And the restaurants and private clubs and horse races. With public funds.
“This stuff” being the talk of the Midlands and much of the state since the nonprofit Public Access to Public Records began releasing the 40,000 documents it received under South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, which reveal the most outrageous examples of public officials living it up on the public dime since Jim Holderman. We haven’t come anywhere near Holderman spending levels yet, and I have no reason to believe we ever will, but we’ve still got 20,000 documents to go.
By focusing on his own lack of knowledge, on his own desire to “get to the bottom of this stuff” — indeed, on his solemn duty to “get to the bottom of all this stuff” — Mr. Johnson shifts attention from the actual stuff, to paperwork requirements. To bureaucracy. To red tape. To bow-tie-clad accountants with horn-rimmed glasses and nasally voices who say: “Excuse me, Mr. Johnson, but IRS regulations require that these expenditures be made from Account Number 54985073329 instead of Account Number 54985073328. The regulations are quite explicit, and we must not deviate from them.”
And how in the world could anyone blame Mr. Johnson for not knowing that, since Richland County won’t provide him with a bow-tie-clad accountant with horn-rimmed glasses and a nasally voice?
How, indeed? Unless they remember that Mr. Johnson’s spending isn’t an accounting problem. It’s a spending problem. It’s the idea that a circuit solicitor travels more at public expense than the attorney general. And the chief justice. And the governor. Combined. That he’s still got more frequent flyer miles than the whole bunch even if you throw in the prosecutor across the river.
You hire an accountant when you want to make sure you’re taking the money for this program out of the fund to pay for this program, and not out of the fund that is meant to pay for a different sort of program. There might very well have been some accounting problems with Mr. Johnson’s spending. And those problems could mean the difference between whether certain expenditures were merely abusive or actually illegal. But frankly, it shouldn’t matter to us whether or not Mr. Johnson’s spending was illegal.
It was excessive and abusive — a clear case of a public official squandering public money — and the fact that it occurred at all is reason enough to ask him to find another job.
Although Mr. Johnson might have need to invest in such services personally, the public does not need to be paying another bow-tie-clad accountant with horn-rimmed glasses and a nasally voice to figure out whether the spending occurred in a way that violates the law. We’re already paying people to figure that out. People who work for the State Law Enforcement Division and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.