'Santa' says 'no excuse' for pricey party prosecutor paid for with public funds

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Claude O'Donovan is a part-time Santa Claus with full-time responsibilities.

"People think it would be hot, but it's not hot. Not at all," he said, as he stroked his full-length white beard. "You don't even know it."

O'Donovan, who lives in Aiken County, started the hobby a few years ago.

"Word gets out, and people get a hold of you and say, 'Can you do it?' If I've got a space, 'Yeah, I'll do it,'" he said.

That was the case more than a year ago when the Fifth Circuit Solicitor's office called O'Donovan up for a 2016 Christmas party.

"It was a two-story nightclub, I think, off of Gervais back in between some buildings," O'Donovan said. "Parking was horrible."

As watchdogs comb through questionable spending by Solicitor Dan Johnson and his staff, the 2016 party is one of the highlights.

Records show the office spent $5,000 on the venue – Social in the Vista, almost $5,000 on catered beef tenderloin and fixings, $1,500 on a DJ – DJ Phlava – who's reported to be Johnson's brother (it also appears the office picked up the tab on his airfare from Phoenix), $500 on patio heaters, and a check to hire O'Donovan for $200. In all, WIS has identified about $12,849 of spending on the 2016 Christmas party.

"Wow," O'Donovan said in reaction when he heard the price tag. "That's way in excess. $2,000, maybe, yeah, you know."

Knowing what he knows now, O'Donovan is stunned.

"They're public servants. They're not there to, you know, act wealthy on public money, and apparently, from what I hear, there was some of that going on," he said.

One more memory from that night O'Donovan recalls – what he was given to hand out randomly to partiers:  a stack of envelopes. O'Donovan believes they were stuffed with money or maybe gift cards since one receipt shows the office bought more than $600 worth from Walmart for the party with public funds. A note on the receipt reads "giveaways and door prizes."

"Had I known, we wouldn't have taken the job," said O'Donovan, who characterized the party as more about alcohol and dancing than Christmas and families.

Meanwhile, a friend of Solicitor Johnson – Representative Todd Rutherford – said it's time for the solicitor to speak up.

"What goes through my head is that he needs to stand in front of a camera and explain himself," Rutherford said.

Tuesday morning, in an unexpected move, Rutherford endorsed Byron Gipson, the Columbia attorney who hopes to unseat Solicitor Johnson.

Repeated phone calls and texts to Johnson for a comment or interview have not been returned. However, in an impromptu interview weeks ago, Johnson said he did nothing wrong and said he'd remedy any problems identified by authorities.

Right now, both the FBI and SLED are examining the office's questionable expenses.

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