MIDLANDS SOLICITOR Dan Johnson wants you to know that he has repaid the $25,036.77 he put on his government credit card for trips to the Galapagos Islands and Bogata, Las Vegas and Washington and other destinations that an audit determined were personal trips. And that he has ended the employment of an assistant who, according to that audit, had a habit of using the office credit card for her own less exotic personal expenses.
That’s all good to know.
But none of that happened until long, long after the expenditures occurred, and only after they began showing up in The State and Charleston’s Post and Courier. And it doesn’t change the fact that Mr. Johnson squandered government money for his personal pleasure in ways that ought to get any elected official kicked out of office — and, in this case, actually did. It doesn’t mean that he didn’t break the law.
In fact, the audit his office released on Friday raises a number of new concerns and questions about how he has run the Fifth Circuit solicitor’s office since he was elected in 2010.
The audit was Mr. Johnson’s response to an embarrassing string of revelations about his possibly legal expenditures that nonetheless were the most outrageous examples of public officials living it up on the public dime since former USC president Jim Holderman: frequent junkets to exotic locales, political campaign-style donations to churches and charities and sororities, parties at pricey restaurants, private clubs and horse races. His effort to “get to the bottom of all this stuff.”
Clearly, it was a political move, announced after Byron Gipson filed to run against him in the June Democratic primary — an attempt to make him appear that he had nothing to hide while giving him an excuse (or what passed for an excuse) for not explaining his wasteful spending.
The audit wasn’t simply another waste of government money, since the FBI and SLED already were examining his spending. In reviewing an additional 150,000 documents “that were produced in response to subpoenas,” Mr. Johnson’s hand-picked auditor revealed to the public additional problems that journalists hadn’t seen in 40,000 documents that had been released to the Columbia nonprofit Public Access to Public Records, under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The audit paints the picture of an office where money was spent with absolute disregard to the law and to propriety. Time after time, the auditor tells us that there was simply no documentation for expenditures Mr. Johnson and his assistant made on their government credit cards; sometimes it appears that the charges were legitimate; other times it appears that they were not.
Even before we get to Mr. Johnson’s trips to the Galapagos and other exotic locales, we learn that rather than depositing all of the fees from a worthless-check restitution program into government accounts, as required by law, Mr. Johnson skimmed 10 percent off the top. About $17,000 from that money was spent on charitable donations — the sort of expenditures that elected officials often make through their political campaign accounts, in order to ingratiate themselves to voters. Another $6,000 was deposited in the office’s largely uncontrolled petty cash fund.
The audit also found that Mr. Johnson used $200,000 in state and federal funds from drug forfeitures to make up a deficit in his office budget, even though the law requires that money to be spent on drug prosecution. Another $30,000 in forfeiture money was spent on gym memberships for his staff. The audit noted dutifully that “the accounting concern in this instance is not the payment of memberships but, if this was the appropriate account to pay them from.”
Who knows? Perhaps he wanted to ensure that his prosecutors are in good enough shape to tackle any drug defendants who try to make a break in the courtroom.
Now, those trips. The problem never was their potential illegality. Or perhaps I should say that you didn’t have to get anywhere close to illegality to reach a huge problem with them: He clearly was squandering public funds for his own pleasure and convenience. The audit seems to imply they might have been illegal as well.
Probably the most important thing the audit did was put some new questions front-and-center before the SLED and/or FBI investigation is completed.
First and foremost: Why was Mr. Johnson using his office credit card to make personal purchases and purchases for his National Guard duty? The audit says he reimbursed the government for $15,800 worth of expenditures in March and April of this year — after they were reported in the media, after Attorney General Alan Wilson asked SLED to investigate and well after they occurred, in 2016 and 2017. Did he make other personal expenditures before 2016, and if so were those reimbursed in a more timely matter? Or at all?
How is repeatedly using a government credit card for personal expenditures not a crime? We’re not talking about accidentally pulling out the wrong credit card to pay for a meal or a hotel reservation. We’re talking about repeatedly using a government credit card — to the tune of $25,000 in less than two years — for personal expenditures. That is not an accident. That is a choice. One that in every other case I’m aware of has ended in a criminal indictment.
And what of his assistant? He accepted the resignation of the woman who charged $15,000 in personal expenses — including $1,020 in dental work that was listed as “tournament sponsorship” — to her government credit card in just seven months. Is that it? No prosecution? I suppose I can see why Mr. Johnson would be personally reticent to bring charges against someone for charging personal expenses to her government credit card, having done the same thing himself. But that is his job. For the next four months, anyway. Isn’t it?
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.