Prosecutors: DOT commissioner told witness to destroy emails

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Prosecutors say a former South Carolina transportation commissioner told a government witness who had made payments to him to destroy emails before the FBI could find them, according to a sentencing memo filed Monday in federal court.

The court filing detailed the accusation and investigation against John Hardee, who in January agreed to plead guilty to tampering with evidence in a federal investigation.

The memo shows that federal officials had investigated Hardee for bribery but determined he did not commit that offense. Prosecutors wrote that his “crime lies only in his decision to attempt to obstruct an investigation” into payments he received.

Hardee was on the South Carolina Department of Transportation board from 1998 to 2007 and from 2014 to 2018. The expressway to Columbia’s airport is named for him.

A defense lawyer for Hardee did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.

Prosecutors wrote that a cooperating witness said he had paid Hardee money to influence contract awards. However, investigators said they found no evidence of contracts that were awarded because of the payments and therefore did not bring bribery charges against Hardee.

“Although Hardee’s acceptance of payments that (the witness) intended to be bribes is distasteful, the United States Supreme Court has found it to be lawful so long as there is no official action,” prosecutors wrote.

However, prosecutors said Hardee did instruct the witness to destroy emails after learning of the investigation.

Investigators recorded a meeting between the two in a restaurant parking lot. During the meeting, prosecutors said the witness “indicated that he was not sure he could convince the FBI of Hardee’s story because of emails between (them) showing the payments were not for a loan or payment for old work.”

“Hardee then instructed (the witness) to destroy the emails before the FBI could find them,” prosecutors wrote.

Federal prosecutors wrote that sentencing guidelines suggest a sentence of between 10 and 16 months imprisonment, but they believed a sentence of probation would be sufficient.