5th Circuit Solicitor Johnson, challenger Gipson face off for last time ahead of primary

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Two days ahead of Tuesday's primary, 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson and challenger Byron Gipson are making last-minute efforts to convince voters to select them in Tuesday's primary.

Solicitor Dan Johnson and challenger attorney Byron Gipson sat down with WIS's Judi Gatson for a forum Sunday night with both appealing to voters one last time before the election primary happens on June 12.

Johnson's being challenged while both the FBI and State Law Enforcement Division try to determine whether he and his office broke the law by spending public money on questionable things.

Documents that watchdogs have released include dozens of head-scratching purchases: a receipt for almost a dozen cases of beer on Hilton Head, invoices for a roughly $13,000 Christmas party complete with beef tenderloin, and bank statements that show travel to exotic destinations like the Galapagos Islands.

When asked about the receipts for the alcohol purchased on Hilton Head, Johnson said it was more than likely for a solicitor's conference, of which he takes a large portion of his staff to.

"We have a hospitality room down there, mostly because we have people who work so hard and are in court more than 50 weeks out of the year and I like people to come together, relax, and get to know each other," Johnson said.

Asked again if he considered it wrong to purchase alcohol using taxpayer dollars, Johnson said no.

"I would not get upset about that if it was in the context of either that particular event or Christmas or something like that," Johnson said. "No, I wouldn't get upset about that."

Earlier this spring, Johnson hired a forensic accountant to comb through thousands of documents, some of which include details of the alleged misuse of taxpayer dollars.

"We shouldn't be in a position where we're trying to figure out where these things happened," Gipson said. "The money came out of the solicitor's account, so the solicitor should know where it went. I've been a part of major audits with different organizations and they can be done in 45 or 60 days. If they can't meet that deadline, you pick someone else."

Johnson said he was looking for someone to conduct the audit in late March, ahead of the federal tax deadline. As a result, he said most were unable to complete the extensive audit in a timely fashion.

Another topic of discussion was raised when Johnson was asked to explain text messages between himself and two former female employees who said they left the solicitor's office after the exchanges made them feel uncomfortable.

Gatson asked Johnson if he had ever sent any text messages he would consider crossing the line or inappropriate to a colleague or someone who worked for him in his office.

"I have," Johnson said. "When I say crossing the line, I mean, I've sent texts that I wish I would have worded better. I've sent text messages that I say, maybe I should have picked up the phone, but not in a sexual way. The person we're talking about I've known for 18 years. I sent her a text message and we talked about a lot of things."

Johnson contends that the texts, some from as many as six years ago, lack overall context. He offered an example during the forum.

"So there was a girl in my office and she was crying because her mother had said she was getting old and not going to get married and so she should just marry a nice Jewish boy," Johnson said. "I came out of my office and asked her what was wrong, she explained and I told her not to worry about it and it was not a big deal. She told me I wasn't helping. So I sent her a text message and said I'd marry her. I didn't mean I was going to marry her, I was being nice. But in hindsight, should I have done that? I guess not, but that's what happened."

In light of the #MeToo movement, Gipson said he wonders if any of Johnson's texts violate an existing sexual harassment policy.

"I'm just a believer we have to make sure especially these days and times that we are not objectifying women," Gipson said. "We have to make sure, as people in a position of power, that we are not making women feel uncomfortable."

"I didn't sexually harass anyone," Johnson replied.

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