Crime & Courts

SC Solicitor Dan Johnson showered female prosecutors with unwanted texts, attention

“I want to see u today sweetie” attorney recounts unwanted attention from Solicitor Dan Johnson

Midlands lawyer Debra Russell, who worked for 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, says she left her job because Johnson made repeated efforts to have a relationship with her. The FBI recently asked Russell for copies of texts between Johnson and her.
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Midlands lawyer Debra Russell, who worked for 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, says she left her job because Johnson made repeated efforts to have a relationship with her. The FBI recently asked Russell for copies of texts between Johnson and her.

Two women who worked as prosecutors for 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson told The State newspaper they left their jobs because Johnson made them feel uncomfortable by his repeated efforts to have a relationship with them.

Both women — lawyers and graduates of the University of South Carolina Law School — said that while working for the solicitor’s office, Johnson sent them hundreds of texts, often about personal matters. Both women said the texts created a hostile work environment with overtones of sexual harassment.

The messages were sent before, during and after office hours, the women said.

“I want to see you today sweetie,” Johnson texted one of the women on April 27, 2012, a weekday, at 1:40 p.m. When she didn’t respond, he texted, “Damn it woman.”

Another time Johnson texted her, saying he was going to go to her house and pick up some files. “If I have to come get them we may never leave the house,” Johnson texted on July 10, 2012.

She texted back, “Now, we talked about this … how it makes me uncomfortable.”

Johnson texted the other woman on Feb. 4, 2012, a Saturday, at 3 p.m, saying, “Come have a drink with me.” She replied, “Are u kidding? I have jury instructions to draft, conference calls (with) witnesses.” Johnson replied with a sad-face emoji — :(.

Another time, on March 31, a Saturday at 9:45 p.m., he texted her, “U r so hot …” and the next hour texted her “I want to marry u” and “I hate that u avoid me.” She replied, “I hate it too but its the right thing to do.”

When Johnson told her again, “I hate the fact that u avoid me,” she replied, “I hate the fact that you dismiss completely valid reasons for doing so. Career suicide for you …”

Johnson — who is seeking re-election to a third term this year and is under investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division and the FBI for his office's spending — said Friday the women's allegations were politically motivated "smears."

"I find it interesting that these smears have been timed to be announced just 11 days before the Democratic primary," Johnson said in an emailed statement. "Certainly, this is just a personal political attack. I believe my record at the Solicitor’s Office and in the community speaks for itself.

"Nevertheless, I am concerned that you continue to target me for stories based on salacious smears."

'Johnson ... is a predator'

Johnson, 47, is the chief law enforcement officer in Richland and Kershaw counties. His 144-person office, which includes 42 prosecutors and nine investigators, has a multimillion-dollar budget.

Johnson makes $141,300 a year. As solicitor, he decides who to hire for his office and who to fire. He also plays a large role in determining what cases go to trial and when.

Both women provided The State newspaper with numerous texts from Johnson’s cellphone. They also gave The State the names of others who they told about Johnson's behavior at the time. Those witnesses backed up the women’s accounts.

Both women said they replied to nearly all of Johnson’s messages to keep him at bay. Both said they did not want — or have — a sexual relationship with Johnson but feared losing their jobs.

They also said they didn’t want to offend Johnson because, as an elected solicitor with influence in the state's law enforcement and legal communities, that could jeopardize the future of their careers.

Neither filed suit.

“The taxpayers need to know that he — Johnson — is a predator,” said one of the women, Lexington County family lawyer Debra Russell, who worked in the Johnson's office as a prosecutor from June 2011 to October 2012.

Before joining Johnson’s office, Russell had worked for eight years for then-11th Circuit Solicitor Donnie Myers in Lexington.

Russell said she decided to speak out publicly about her experience with Johnson, in part, because of the upcoming June 12 Democratic primary, when the solicitor is seeking a third four-year term in office.

Russell also said her concerns about Johnson increased two weeks ago, when an FBI agent and a SLED agent came to her office. They asked her about any relationship she might have had with Johnson or trips she might have taken with him.

Russell said she told the agents that she did not have a personal relationship with Johnson and did not take personal trips with him.

The agents said they were talking to women who worked for Johnson. They also wanted copies of text messages that Johnson had sent her while she worked there, Russell said. “I gave them the text messages.”

Since March, the FBI and SLED, working with federal prosecutors, have been investigating Johnson’s use of hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money during his eight years in office. According to records released by the nonprofit group PAPR, that spending includes extensive travel — abroad and across the country, including to casino complexes — and luxury car trips. Johnson has said he has commissioned an independent audit on his office’s spending. Any results of that audit have not been disclosed.

'This man had complete control'

The second woman alleging impropriety by Johnson did not want to be identified, saying she feared retaliation. However, the former prosecutor, who now practices criminal defense law outside the Midlands, provided The State with dozens of text messages from Johnson.

The woman, who worked at Johnson's office from 2011 to early 2013, said she is coming forward now because Russell is speaking up.

“I didn’t want Debra to be out there alone. She gave me courage,” the woman said.

At the time she was employed in Johnson’s office, the woman said she spoke to veteran Columbia lawyer Desa Ballard about Johnson’s conduct.

“She came to see me to inquire about what remedies might be available,” Ballard confirmed this week to The State.

Ultimately, the woman decided not to sue because of Johnson's position in the legal field. However, she has contributed to Johnson's opponent in the June 12 primary.

"The fact that this man had complete control over my livelihood — the years of study, the six figures in loans, the reputation I had labored for as an intern, clerk and member of professional organizations. ... I could not begin to contemplate all of the ramifications that might arise from disclosure," said the woman.

The second former prosecutor shared a text message where Johnson said he had wanted to travel abroad with her.

“I wanted u to go to Spain with me,” Johnson texted on Jan. 23, 2013, a Wednesday, at 6:04 p.m.

She replied, “What?! Come on are u kidding me?!”

Johnson texted back, “Seriously, but discreetly ... It would have been for 5 days.”

The woman replied, “Dear lord! That’s some invite mr! Thank you. You constantly surprise me.”

Johnson texted: “One day u will come around.”

'Abuse of power'

Two legal ethics scholars said Johnson’s texts to his subordinates were out of bounds.

“It’s unprofessional … an abuse of power,” said John Freeman, professor emeritus in business and professional ethics at the University of South Carolina School of Law. “I wouldn’t do it. It’s not professional to treat other lawyers in an aggressive, unprofessional way like that.”

Greg Adams, ethics law professor at the USC law school, said it was “highly inappropriate” for a lawyer with power over the career of an employee persistently to seek an unwanted romantic or a sexual relationship.

It is not a relationship between equals, Adams said. “These women are trying to protect their careers and at the same time saying, ‘Leave me alone. I don’t want to get involved.’ ”

Both women said Johnson’s conduct was a large factor in their leaving his office.

Russell said she quit her job several months after she got a text from Johnson saying, "How was Sportsman's Warehouse?" It was "very creepy," Russell said, adding she had been to the retail store with her boyfriend over the weekend but hadn't seen Johnson.

Russell said she shared her experiences with Johnson with various people at the time, including Columbia lawyer David Shea. Shea confirmed being told.

But Russell didn't complain publicly.

“I didn’t tell anyone in the office because I was just afraid, and I let it go on longer than I should have — but he was my boss,” Russell said. "I was in a bad spot. I had two small children. I was going through a divorce. I needed my job.”

Records show that Fifth Circuit Solicitor, Dan Johnson spent public money on luxury Uber rides and exotic international trips, sparking a FBI investigation into his office's questionable spending.