South Carolina

Dementia led ex-SC DOT official Hardee to seek prostitute, attorney says

A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced John Hardee to seven months in prison for breaking his federal probation by trying to hire a prostitute in what turned out to be a Richland County Sheriff’s Department sting.

“You didn’t learn the last time — I hope you learn this time,” U.S. Judge Terry Wooten told Hardee, 72, of Columbia, explaining that Hardee had betrayed the trust the judge put in him by giving him an 18-month no-prison probation sentence in August after Hardee pleaded guilty to obstructing justice in an FBI investigation.

During Wednesday’s nearly two-hour hearing at the federal courthouse in Columbia to determine whether Hardee would go to prison, Hardee’s lawyer Jack Swerling put a psychiatrist on the witness stand who testified that she had tested Hardee and he had met the criteria for a mild case of dementia.

The dementia has somewhat impaired Hardee’s judgment and ability to control himself, but he still knew right from wrong, testified psychiatrist Donna Maddox.

That didn’t impress the judge who, just before he pronounced the sentence, told the court audience that “it doesn’t seem like he (Hardee) is somebody who is suffering from dementia to the point where he doesn’t know what he is doing.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney DeWayne Pearson, who in August had joined with Hardee’s defense lawyers in asking for probation, this time made it clear to Wooten that the prosecution wanted prison time for Hardee.

Within hours of getting his probation sentence, Pearson said, Hardee contaced he believed was a prostitute and was carrying out a complex plan to meet up with “her” and exchanging multiple text messages, Pearson told the judge.

Wooten said Hardee had violated probation faster than anyone he had ever seen in his nearly 20 years on the bench.

Hardee, who was in court dressed in a jail jumpsuit, apologized to his family and Wooten “for betraying your trust.”

“To all of you, I can’t say I’m sorry enough,” Hardee said, reading from a statement he clutched in his handcuffed hands. “There aren’t enough words to convey my regret.”

Hardee, who has been in jail since early August when he was arrested in Richland County for soliciting a prostitute, said his jail experience has shaken him because he has been with terrible criminals and heard “language used I did never experience.”

“One more thing,” Hardee told the judge, “I will not do it again. I will not cause any problem.”

Sending Hardee to prison appears to put an end to a bizarre criminal saga that has captivated the public’s attention around South Carolina.

Up to this year, Hardee had been the picture of successful respectability. A Rotarian, a member of the prominent First Baptist Church and a former board member of the S.C. Department of Transportation, Hardee is also the son-in-law of powerful state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.

But in January, in surprise filings in federal court, Hardee and his lawyers announced he had agreed to plead guilty to a federal felony charge alleging he took part in a cover-up in an FBI investigation by telling an associate to destroy his emails so the FBI couldn’t look at them. It is a crime to obstruct a federal investigation.

In August, Judge Terry Wooten gave Hardee 18 months of probation instead of a prison sentence for three reasons: Hardee had never been accused of any crime, he was a good citizen and although the FBI investigated Hardee for possible bribery offenses, it could not prove he took a bribe. The only crime Hardee turned out to have committed was to have asked his associate to destroy emails.

Wooten told Harvey that to stay on probation, he must obey all state, federal and local laws.

But within hours of getting probation, Hardee began using his cell phone to set up a meeting with the supposed prostitute, according to documents filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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

Evidence in the case showed Hardee was familiar with the codes and street slang used by prostitutes to describe prices for various sexual practices, Pearson has said in previous filings. On Wednesday, both Pearson and the judge noted that Hardee’s ability to negotiate an illegal business transaction using streetwalker codes via text messages meant that he wasn’t all that impaired by dementia.

Every now and then, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department sets up an elaborate sting operation using a sham prostitute’s house and a computer operations center in another location. All the interactions with potential “customers” are recorded on video and audio cameras and on cell phone text messages.

When Hardee showed up at “her” place on Aug. 8, a team of officers wearing guns and bulletproof vestsarrested him and took him to the Richland County jail, where he was photographed and fingerprinted.

Although Hardee was quickly released on bond on the state prostitution charge, he was jailed the following week on charges that he violated his federal probation agreement. Federal Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges then refused to grant bail to Hardee, saying he was a “danger to the community” because people who patronize prostitutes support the enslavement of young people in the human trafficking trade.

Since then, Hardee has remained in jail, waiting for Wooten to set a hearing date to see what sentence would be imposed for violating probation by trying to hire a prostitute.

Hardee served on the S.C. Department of Transportation’s board from about 1998 to 2007 and again from 2014 to 2016.

After leaving prison, Hardee will serve three months on house arrest with electronic monitoring and three years of what is called “supervised release,” during which he must check in with federal probation officers. He must also pay a $1,000 fine, do 40 hours of community service and participate in a mental health treatment program.

While on house arrest, Hardee can attend church services, but he must go to a Sunday morning service and be home by 1:30 p.m., Wooten said.

As a top DOT official, Hardee received the honor of having roads named after him. Now those signs have come down, including the most prominent, the John Hardee Expressway at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. Its name has been changed to the Columbia Airport Expressway.