Although the FBI worked to prove that former S.C. Department of Transportation commissioner John Hardee took multiple bribes while on the powerful, roads-spending commission, its agents never succeeded in getting conclusive proof, according to a public filing Monday in Hardee’s case.
What the FBI did prove is that Hardee lied and told an informant to destroy evidence in the case, the filing said.
“The meeting between Hardee and (the informant) was captured on audio and video,” the filing said.
Hardee, 71, of Columbia, was charged by the government in January with attempting to destroy evidence in an official government proceeding. At the time, few details of what led to the charges were made public. Hardee’s commission controls hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of road spending around the state each year.
Monday’s filing was what is called a government “sentencing memorandum,” in which prosecutors laid out some of those details, offering their reasons for recommending an appropriate sentence for the defendant.
In Hardee’s case, federal prosecutor DeWayne Pearson wrote that since the government can’t prove that Hardee ever intended to perform an official act for the payments he was receiving from the informant, it will not oppose giving Hardee a probationary sentence — instead of prison.
What the government can prove is that Hardee intended to foil an official FBI investigation — and that is a crime, but a lesser crime than bribery, the filing said.
“Hardee’s crime lies only in his decision to attempt to obstruct an investigation into those payments,” the filing said.
“As such, and in keeping with the government’s desire to draw a distinction between individuals like Hardee and those that are guilty of accepting bribes and kickbacks, a probationary sentence would be sufficient,” the filing said.
The sentencing memorandum does not say how many payments were made to Hardee. Neither does it say what the payments were for.
But the filing does say that a person identified only as “Cooperating Witness 1,” or “CW1,” told the FBI that he had given “bribes and kickbacks to public officials in exchange for the award of government infrastructure contracts.
“CW1 claimed he had paid money to Hardee, then a member of the S.C. Department of Transportation board of commissioners, in exchange for contract awards,” the filing said. “Although CW1 produced records of multiple payments made to Hardee ... CW1 was unable to identify any project that he had been awarded based upon his payments to Hardee.”
The filing also said that CW1 agreed to help the FBI in its investigation of Hardee. CW1 made and recorded calls to Hardee, warning him the FBI was looking into the payments Hardee had gotten from CW1.
During various phone calls and a meeting, Hardee told CW1 to claim the payments were for an unrecorded loan or for “previous work Hardee performed for CW1’s business,” the filing said. Finally, Hardee told CW1 to destroy emails that mentioned the payments “before the FBI could find them,” the filing said.
Hardee served two stints — from 1998 to 2007 and from 2014 to 2018 — on the governing commission of the S.C. Department of Transportation, helping make decisions about how to spend billions of dollars on state roads. He was a former commission vice-chairman.
Like many S.C. public officials, Hardee even had a road named after him — the John N. Hardee Expressway at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport.
Hardee also is the son-in-law of powerful state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.
One of Hardee’s attorneys, Jim Griffin of Columbia, said, “We agree with the government’s assessment that John Hardee did not abuse his position of public trust in connection with his official duties.”
Griffin said he and his co-counsel, State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, will “more fully elaborate on the facts and circumstances of the case” at a future hearing.
A date for a hearing at which Hardee will both plead guilty and be sentenced has not yet been set.
Federal Judge Terry Wooten will preside.
According to documents filed in U.S. District Court in South Carolina, Hardee has agreed to plead guilty to an information or federal criminal felony charge, alleging he participated in a cover-up by trying to destroy evidence that could be used in an official proceeding.
Hardee could face up to 16 months in prison, according to Pearson’s filing.
The sentencing memo said that prosecuting Hardee, even if there were no bribes, is important “if only to deter other individuals from attempting to interfere in federal investigations.”
Hardee’s years on the Transportation Department’s governing commission were marked by controversy.
Until 2016, transportation commissioners were appointed by legislative delegations from the state’s seven congressional districts. It was custom for the commission seats to rotate among counties in the individual congressional districts every four years.
But Hardee served almost 10 years after he was first appointed in 1998.
However, in 2007, a S.C. Supreme Court decision forced Hardee off the Transportation Department commission. Greenville businessman Ed Sloan filed suit alleging Hardee had remained on the commission past the time allowed by law, and the high court agreed.
Hardee was reappointed to the commission in 2014. However, in 2016, a new law gave the governor the power to appoint commissioners.
Hardee’s most recent four-year term expired last year, and Gov. Henry McMaster declined to reappoint Hardee to another four-year term. Instead, McMaster named John Burris, president and owner of a Lexington County real estate and construction company, to the commission.
At that time, Hardee told a State reporter, “I was term limited out, and I respect the law.”