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Top South Carolina legislator endorsing foe of under-fire prosecutor

  • Updated
Byron Gipson files for 5th Circuit Solicitor

Flanked by House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, Columbia lawyer Byron Gipson filed as a candidate for 5th Circuit Solicitor on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. 

COLUMBIA — Less than two weeks after he was supposed to be a host for a campaign fundraiser for Dan Johnson, S.C. House Democratic Leader Todd Rutherford is instead endorsing the 5th Circuit solicitor's primary election opponent.

With Rutherford at his side, Columbia lawyer Byron Gipson filed for the race Tuesday, reiterating his concerns about reports of Johnson's office spending and vowing to return the focus of the solicitor to prosecuting cases. 

"The courthouse is not going to be a place I just walk by to get to my office," Gipson said. 

Unlike Johnson, who rarely spends time in the courtroom, Gipson — a criminal defense attorney for Johnson, Toal & Battiste — said he would personally try cases.

"That’s what I do," he said. "I enjoy being in the courtroom, and I know what to do in the courtroom."

Rutherford, a Columbia attorney and former assistant prosecutor, said he is tired of waiting for an explanation from Johnson after reports surfaced of solicitor office money being spent on out-of-town and foreign trips, gym and club memberships, pricey meals, a Super Bowl party and a holiday party DJ who was Johnson's brother.

Johnson, first elected in 2010 as chief prosecutor for Richland and Kershaw counties, had vowed to run for a third term. As of Tuesday afternoon, he hadn't filed as a candidate. Filing ends Friday. Johnson did not respond to messages left by phone and email on Tuesday.

Rutherford said Johnson should consider staying out of the race. 

"If I were giving him advice, I would advise him not to file," Rutherford said. "We can’t have an elected official in South Carolina avoiding answering questions ... as their office prosecutes other people under the law.

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"That is simply unacceptable. It cannot happen here."

Rutherford did not attend the March 14 fundraiser for Johnson where he was one of 15 co-hosts, citing a family commitment. 

Johnson pledged to review the expenses but has not offered any answers since The Post and Courier published the first details about his office's lavish spending on March 8. The State Law Enforcement Division started an investigation with the FBI joining the inquiry.

"There are issues that need to be resolved," Rutherford said. "We need the office to move forward without the baggage that we have seen."

Gipson, who met Johnson while attending the University of South Carolina law school in the 1990s, said poor judgment was used if reports about the expenses are accurate.

"I’m running for solicitor because I believe the integrity of that office needs to be restored," he said.

Papr, a watchdog group of lawyers and journalists, has released records of spending at Johnson's office obtained with open records requests and still has thousands of documents in its possession. The latest releases included checks made out to "cash" and money shifted from the office drug seizure account to a credit card used for travel. 

"As the allegations continue to come," Rutherford said, "they grow in severity."

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Joseph Cranney is an investigative reporter in Columbia, with a focus on government corruption and injustices in the criminal legal system. He can be reached securely by Proton mail at jcranney@prontonmail.com or on Signal at 215-285-9083.

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