COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Tuesday, Richland County and Kershaw County voters will decide who their next Fifth Circuit Solicitor should be. Should it be the incumbent solicitor, Dan Johnson, or his challenger, Byron Gipson?
Over the past few days, WIS tracked down both candidates for one-on-one interviews to help voters do their homework before the primary.
Who's Byron Gipson?
Gipson is a graduate of Dreher High School, the College of Charleston, and the University of South Carolina School of Law.
His legal career began with a judicial clerkship with Judge Casey Manning. He later began working as an associate at the law firm of Johnson, Toal, and Battiste, P.A., where he's been a trial lawyer across the state for almost 21 years. His goal is to restore integrity to the solicitor's office.
"I'm running because I believe we have to do a better job handling the business of the solicitor's office. In my almost 21 years of practicing law, I've always believed in fairness and making sure everyone has equal access to justice, regardless of your zip code," Gipson said.
Gipson's facing Solicitor Dan Johnson, a graduate of the Citadel and the University of South Carolina School of Law who has a background in law enforcement and joined the National Guard after the 9/11 attacks. He's a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After his service, he was first elected solicitor in 2010 and again in 2014.
Johnson has touted his record of transforming the solicitor's office.
"I believe we've done the work," Johnson said. "I believe we're so engaged in the community, we're helping people, we're dealing with violent criminals, holding them accountable, helping to keep our kids off the streets and out of gangs. I believe we've been out there doing the things that are hard and helping people and making the community better."
When asked about caseload, Gipson said he'll be in the trenches with his assistant solicitors to bring the number of pending cases down. Meanwhile, Johnson said since he was first elected, he's hired more lawyers to reduce a 12,000 caseload by 30%.
Aside from their backgrounds, both said experience in their fields sets them apart from each other.
"I've done the job," Johnson said. "I have a record of completing and creating the first veterans court in South Carolina, creating the first homeless court in South Carolina, creating the first juvenile mental health court in South Carolina, and reducing the caseload. We've been working."
Gipson said he also has unique experience from the two decades he's spent in courtrooms.
"The experience of trying cases. The experience of sitting in living rooms of people who've been charged with crimes and whose family members have been in jail for inordinate periods of time, so it sets me apart because I've been in those living rooms for almost 21 years, and I can bring that perspective to a solicitor's office, so that we can do things in a more holistic way," Gipson said.
The race to become Richland and Kershaw Counties chief prosecutor is normally pretty dull, but this year, that's not the case because the current solicitor is entrenched in scandal.
When they were released to the public by a watchdog group months ago, page after page of bank statements and receipts seemed to show questionable spending by Solicitor Johnson and his staff. The documents seemed to show that the solicitor's office used public money to pay for personal pleasures like global travel and plush parties.
It's questionable spending the solicitor has yet to fully explain.
"As I've said, we've hired an audit, and you know that. We've discussed that, and we're waiting for him to give his results. Those allegations are not true," said Johnson.
"Could you just tell us right now, 'Hey, I was in this place for a conference related to law enforcement or prosecuting cases?'" WIS asked the solicitor.
"What I'd like to do is let the auditor come out with all the facts," he responded.
"Has your office reimbursed any of the expenses so far?" WIS asked in response.
"Again, I think the fairest way to do this is to let the auditor do his work," he said. "I've turned over everything because I think we're doing things the right way."
Unfortunately for voters, the audit won't be complete before the election, but preliminary findings have found financial sloppiness and personal expenditures made by several employees with public funds.
As for Johnson's challenger, Byron Gipson, perhaps his biggest weakness is the fact that he's never prosecuted a case.
Does that put him at a disadvantage?
"No, it doesn't put me at a disadvantage," he answered. "It lets me see the whole pictures because I already know what's going on on the other side, so I already know what needs to be shored up with how cases are investigated. I know why cases are lost. I know how to shore those things up, so no, it'll be a benefit, because it gives a different perspective," Gipson answered.
Another criticism Johnson has lobbed at Gipson is that he'll be a puppet to the prominent attorneys supporting his campaign. Thursday night, in a forum, Gipson strongly rebuked that claim.
"Nobody buys me. I'm a man," Gipson told Johnson and the applauding crowd.
The statewide primary is on Tuesday, June 12. To vote for Fifth Circuit Solicitor, a voter will have to request a Democratic ballot.