Dan Johnson, a Fifth Circuit Solicitor in South Carolina, is under investigation by the FBI after an investigation into questionable use of funds from civil asset forfeiture funds.
Johnson’s spending records were recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the watchdog organization, Public Access to Public Records (PAPR). They show that on April 14, 2017, Johnson moved $10,000 from a fund containing the proceeds from civil asset forfeiture to a credit card which he used to pay for travel in South America.
The records also show Johnson used money from the fund to pay for trips to casinos and gym memberships for his staff in addition to trips to the Galapagos Islands, Amsterdam, and London.
According to South Carolina law, public money must be used for public purposes. Additionally, as spokesman for the Attorney General’s office, Robert Kittle, explains, funds obtained during “drug seizures have to be used for drug-related prosecutions or enforcement.”
It is currently unclear whether Johnson’s expenses fulfill these requirements. He has made no statement giving the reasons for his travel. Earlier this month he stressed, “At no time did I intend for office funds to be used to pay for personal expenses.”
These revelations about Johnson come at a time when state legislators are looking into ways of reforming South Carolina’s civil asset forfeiture laws. Currently, law enforcement can seize property without a criminal conviction or even a criminal charge. If these reforms become law, a criminal conviction would be required in order for property to be seized. Additionally, seizing property from innocent owners would be prohibited.
In 2015, the libertarian Institute for Justice (IJ) graded South Carolina’s civil asset forfeiture procedures as “D-.” IJ states that there are “poor protections for innocent third-party property owners.
Police agencies in the state are allowed to keep the first $1,000 of any seizure made. Of the rest, 75 percent goes to law enforcement, 20 percent goes to prosecutors, while the remainder goes to the state’s general fund.
There are few checks and balances to ensure the system is not being abused. In 2015, IJ found it possible to only “obtain records of the 5 percent of forfeiture proceeds deposited into the state general fund.”
As property in South Carolina can be seized without a conviction, the burden of proof lies with the individual who had property seized and not with law enforcement. The complexity of civil asset forfeiture procedures, as well as the expense of hiring a lawyer to fight the case, means cases where innocent people have had their property seized may go unchallenged.
If it is shown Johnson used proceeds from civil asset forfeiture inappropriately, it would underline how little oversight there is on the processes covering civil asset seizures in South Carolina.
The FBI, working with the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), is currently interviewing Johnson’s staffers. When asked about the investigation, Mark Keel, SLED chief, replied, “No comment.”
Johnson has announced he intends to stand for reelection in November. “I stand by the work I do in my office and in our communities, ” he says. “If mistakes were made, I will certainly remedy it.”
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Photo of FBI badge by Tim Gudenrath.