COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The gloves came off Thursday night during a debate between candidates hoping to be the next chief prosecutor for Richland and Kershaw Counties. Will it be the incumbent solicitor, who's entrenched in a scandal, or his challenger, who lacks prosecutorial experience?
Voters will have to make that decision next Tuesday, but during the debate at Word of God Church and Ministries in Columbia, hundreds of those voters seemed to get some help deciding who they'll cast their ballots for when they watched Solicitor Dan Johnson and Byron Gipson go head-to-head on the debate stage.
The debate spanned multiple topics - from programs for juveniles to prosecuting law enforcement - but just under the surface was the drama surrounding the Fifth Circuit Solicitor's Office right now. Both the FBI and SLED are investigating the office for questionable spending of public money on things like foreign travel and gaudy parties.
"As the continued scandals and hits have started to come, it puts the solicitor's office in a place where people lose their belief that the office is going to do the right thing," Gipson said.
Johnson defended himself and maintained he's done nothing wrong.
"There have been allegations made, so what I have agreed to do – I mean, let's not hide from the question, right – what I agreed to do was hire a forensic auditor to look at all that and show the public. That is what I chose to do so that people would know that we are using the money appropriately," he said in response to a question about the questionable spending.
As Solicitor Johnson did his best to play defense and bolster his support, his challenger, Gipson, seemed to ignite a spark with the crowd of about 500 voters. That spark intensified toward the end of the debate when Johnson attacked one of Gipson's supporters, prominent attorney Dick Harpootlian.
"If Mr. Gipson thinks that he won't have these contrived scandals brought up about him if he were to become solicitor, he's sadly mistaken, particularly when 40% of the money he's 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, so I wonder how much he was rented for?" Johnson said.
Gipson rebutted Johnson's attack.
"Dick Harpootlian was a big supporter of Dan Johnson during his first run and his second run. I.S. Leevy Johnson was a big supporter of Dan Johnson. Luther Battiste was a big supporter of Dan Johnson. I was a big supporter of Dan Johnson. Seth Rose was a big supporter of Dan Johnson. Barney Giese was a big supporter of Dan Johnson. I can go down a list of over 56 other lawyers who are big supporters, but they have lost trust in his ability to govern in his sense as the solicitor because of these scandals and because of what they've seen," Gipson said.
As applause intensified, Gipson continued.
"Let's just be clear, there are no strings attached. Nobody buys me. I work. I am a man. And when we leave this place, I will still be a man," Gipson said, his attention turning to the crowd. "I will handle my business like a man, and I will handle your business like a man."
"Mr. Gipson, I love him to death, he's a friend. I love him, right. But he does not understand what these guys that are pulling his strings are trying to do," Johnson said in response.