Incumbent 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, beset by allegations of misspending public money and sexual harassment, denied any wrongdoing Thursday, accusing his Democratic primary opponent of being the stooge of a former S.C. Democratic Party chairman.
Johnson told a group of more than 400 at Columbia's Word of God Church that his challenger in the June 12 Democratic primary, Byron Gipson, is being financed by Dick Harpootlian, who also is a former 5th Circuit solicitor.
Harpootlian is responsible for the "contrived scandals" that have beset his bid for a third four-year term, Johnson said.
"Forty percent of the money he (Gipson) has raised came from a man named Dick Harpootlian, a guy who has said he didn’t want to buy the black vote, he just wanted to rent it," Johnson said. "So I’m wondering how much he (Gipson) was rented for."
Like Johnson, Gipson is African-American.
Harpootlian, who is white, is known for his sometimes politically incorrect comments. However, he has contributed only $2,000 of the $66,140 that Gipson has raised for his campaign.
In response, Gipson said Harpootlian is only one of many Midlands lawyers who have turned against Johnson.
Prominent lawyers losing trust in Johnson "because of these scandals" include I.S. Leevy Johnson, Luther Battiste, Seth Rose and Barney Giese, Gipson said, to cheers.
"Let's just be clear. There are no strings attached. Nobody buys me. I work. I’m a man," said Gipson. "And, when I leave this place, I will still be a man. And I will still fight for you. And I will not blame somebody else and throw somebody under the bus."
Last year, Harpootlian, a Johnson critic, helped form a group that filed Freedom of Information requests for eight years of spending records from Johnson's office. In March, after the news media began publishing stories about that spending, the FBI and State Law Enforcement Division launched an investigation.
Records obtained by Harpootlian's group showed Johnson and top aides spent tens of thousands of dollars on parties and travel around the United States and the world. Johnson's destinations included casinos and the Galapagos Islands. Under pressure, Johnson hired an auditor who is examining the spending records of his office, which receives $10 million a year from various public sources.
"Dan Johnson wants to blame everybody but himself," Harpootlian said Friday. "My advice to Dan? Look in the mirror."
Last month, The State newspaper published a story about two female Johnson staffers, both lawyers, who said Johnson sent them hundreds of text messages seeking a closer relationship while they worked in his office. The women, who subsequently left the prosecutor's office, produced copies of the text messages and witnesses to support their allegations of sexual harassment.
Asked about the women at Thursday's forum, Johnson said, "I stand before you as a person who also is innocent. I have never been charged with anything. I have heard all those things, but we have not done anything wrong."
Text messages that he sent the women, which were published in The State, were "taken out of context," Johnson said.
Drawing applause, Gipson responded, “It is never acceptable for any man in any position of power to attempt to prey on women ... It will not be tolerated in my office — period."
The solicitor is chief law enforcement officer in Richland and Kershaw counties. His 144-employee office prosecutes accused criminals and operates various court programs.