Incumbent 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, the target of an ongoing FBI and State Law Enforcement Division investigation, lost Tuesday's Democratic primary in a landslide Tuesday to challenger Byron Gipson.
Gipson, 46, a veteran Columbia trial lawyer who never has held public office, crushed Johnson, 47, with nearly all votes tallied in Richland and Kershaw counties. Gipson does not face Republican opposition in the November general election, meaning that, unless a write-in candidate surfaces, he will be the circuit's next solicitor.
In an interview after his victory, Gipson said his first priority in office will be to hire a professional accountant to ensure the office's finances are transparent and in order.
"We won because the people of Richland and Kershaw counties are ready for the truth to be told. They are ready for positive change, and somebody who will fight for the right things," Gipson said.
The 5th Circuit solicitor is the chief law enforcement officer in Richland and Kershaw counties. His office oversees nearly all criminal prosecutions in those counties. The 144-person office has a $10 million budget, 42 assistant prosecutors and a variety of court diversion programs.
Just three months ago, Johnson was considered a shoo-in to win a third four-year term to the $141,300-a-year post.
Then, a watchdog group, Public Access to Public Records, or PAPR, began to make public eight years of financial records from Johnson's office. Those records outlined a lavish, hidden lifestyle by Johnson, full of visits to casinos and luxury Uber taxis, and travels around the nation and world.
SLED has launched an ongoing investigation into the possible misuse of public money, a probe joined by the FBI.
The State also published allegations by two female lawyers that Johnson had sexually harassed them while they worked as assistant prosecutors in Johnson's office, sending hundreds of text messages during and after work. In the texts, obtained by The State, Johnson sought a closer relationship with the women.
In the last month, nearly 60 Midlands lawyers deserted Johnson's re-election effort and contributed $1,000 each to Gipson's campaign. Johnson only could raise some $10,000.
Johnson tried to minimize the damage from the allegations. He hired two criminal defense lawyers to handle the FBI-SLED investigation. He also announced his office was hiring an auditor and promised transparency when the auditor's findings were complete — sometime in late July at the earliest.
In public forums, Johnson talked about the popular programs he has started, including making it easier to get minor criminal offenses erased from violators' records so they could get jobs. He also talked about the public money — thousands of dollars — he has used to sustain crime prevention programs and hire 55 youths a year as interns in his office.
That, and his outgoing personality, impressed some voters.
"Johnson visited our church — he's a nice fellow," said Gary Hemingway, 58, who works with people with disabilities. Of the allegations about Johnson, Hemingway said, "They're just allegations. God bless him if he wins."
However, Nick Harmon, 25, a software developer, said he voted for Gipson, citing the allegations about Johnson as the determining factor.
5th Circuit solicitor
Democratic primary, 178 of the 188 precincts in Richland and Kershaw counties reporting