Incumbent Dan Johnson and lawyer Byron Gipson bid for support in primary

Embattled Columbia-area prosecutor Dan Johnson (right) speaks at a candidates forum in Columbia on Tuesday, May 22, 2018, with his opponent, lawyer Byron Gipson. Joseph Cranney/Staff

COLUMBIA — At a recent candidate forum at Friendship Baptist Church, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Anthony Dicks, had a chance to go after embattled Columbia-area prosecutor Dan Johnson, who is running in the Democratic primary for a third term as 5th Circuit solicitor. 

But Dicks has a 10-year relationship with Johnson and has praised him for his work. Instead of pressing Johnson on the FBI investigation into his office spending, Dicks deferred the issue to Johnson’s lone opponent in the primary race, Columbia defense lawyer Byron Gipson.

If Johnson was your client, Dicks asked Gipson, how would you defend him?

During the campaign Johnson has emerged from similar moments mostly unscathed. Reporting by The Post and Courier based on public records showed the veteran prosecutor charged taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars on out-of-state trips, club memberships and lavish office parties.

Johnson hasn’t admitted any wrongdoing. His office hired an auditor to review his books but in the meantime, he said the suggestion he misspent public money is unfounded.

“Allegations are just that,” he told the few dozen residents who gathered at the church. “I respect the fact that a mere allegation can ruin someone’s life.”

Dicks said Johnson has played an active role in the church’s efforts to keep kids out of gangs.

“I’ve seen him at the church when there was no political race to run,” Dicks said.

Gipson, Dicks said, was mostly unknown in the community.

The exchange at the forum highlights the likelihood that concerns about Johnson’s spending won’t entirely erase the support he’s gained during his eight-year tenure in Richland and Kershaw counties.

His backers say that gives Johnson a chance in his bid for a third term, despite a pending federal investigation.

For his part, Gipson acknowledged his campaign is working to get his name out. He ran radio advertisements throughout May and paid for campaign displays on more than a half dozen billboards in Richland County.

“The key is making sure people understand who I am and what I stand for,” Gipson said. “Remind people of my experience, that we have to be accountable for everything we do in that office at all times.”

Muddling things further, the question of whether Johnson broke the law with his office spending likely won’t be settled before the June 12 primary.

That’s because any federal charges that may stem from the investigation wouldn’t be brought before voters go to the polls, in line with a Department of Justice policy against issuing indictments that could affect elections, said Bill Nettles, a former U.S. attorney in South Carolina.

Johnson in his campaign materials promotes his work with young people, including the creation of a number of diversion programs for troubled youth. 

"Every job I have ever held has been one of public and community service," said Johnson, who is also an Iraq War veteran. In 2010, he became the first African-American elected as 5th Circuit solicitor. 

Through the Columbia Urban League’s Take Back Our Youth diversion program, Johnson’s office in recent years kept dozens of nonviolent young offenders out of prison, said J.T. McLawhorn, the group's president. 

“We’ve had a closer working relationship with Dan Johnson than any other solicitor when it comes to trying to divert young people from the criminal justice system,” McLawhorn said.

Gipson, a 20-year lawyer of the Johnson, Toal & Battiste law firm, headed by renowned civil rights attorney I.S. Leevy Johnson, entered the solicitor’s race in March after The Post and Courier detailed Johnson’s office spending in several reports.

Gipson has seen a boost from a contingent of local Democrats and several prominent members of the Columbia legal community who are rallying behind him to raise $72,000 for the campaign. 

High-profile Columbia lawyers Jack Swerling and Joe McCulloch each wrote Gipson's campaign a $1,000 check, the maximum contribution allowed in the race, according to campaign finance disclosures posted last week. The law firm of Barney Giese, the former 5th Circuit solicitor who has supported Johnson in the past, also contributed $1,000 to Gipson. 

Dick Harpootlian, the former 5th Circuit solicitor and former chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, said he hosted an April fundraiser at his house for Gipson that raised more than $20,000.

Harpootlian helps manage Papr, a new S.C. watchdog group that obtained thousands of financial documents from Johnson’s office and published them online. The Post and Courier pinpointed many of Johnson’s questionable expenses in those documents.

Johnson's latest disclosures were not filed by Tuesday's deadline and had not been submitted as of Friday.

At a fundraiser in Columbia in May, Gipson pledged to bring accountability to the solicitor's office, which has about 9,900 pending cases.

“We will do things differently,” Gipson told supporters, who applauded.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.