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Debra Russell: Standing Up To The Smear Machine

Lexington, S.C. attorney fights back against disgraced solicitor …

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Debra Russell’s journey over the past decade began with love … and love is where it wound up.

She’s been reunited with a husband whom she calls her “one true love” – a man who is the father of her two elementary school-aged children.

“Two people destined to be together forever,” she says.

She has a job she loves, too – working every day to build a business that she started with nothing (one which was borne out of necessity).

Of course the whiplash-inducing ride this Lexington, South Carolina attorney went on between these two blissful bookends – complete with several twists and turns that she acknowledges were the result of her own bad choices – was replete with pitfalls and pernicious villains.

One high-profile villain in particular …

It’s the sort of story that could fill multiple seasons of a hit reality television show … or anchor the screenplay of a binge-worthy new Netflix drama.

It is also at the center of a looming legal investigation that could fundamentally reshape law enforcement in the Midlands region of the Palmetto State – a place where street gangs are steadily expanding their reach and political corruption runs rampant.

Russell’s part of this narrative was never supposed to be made public, though.  You were never supposed to have heard of her – which would have been just fine with her.

All of that changed this month, though …

Three days ago, the 46-year-old attorney stepped forward to confront a powerful, well-known Palmetto State prosecutor – a man with a history of erratic and menacing behavior.  We’re referring, of course, to S.C. fifth circuit solicitor Dan Johnson – whose ever-expanding list of scandals includes multiple allegations of sexual harassment against women.

Our longtime readers are well aware of these allegations because they were first reported by this new site more than five years ago.

(Click to view)

(Via: S.C. Fifth Circuit Solicitor)

Russell was one of the women harassed by Johnson (above).  And last week, she was the first to stand up and publicly call him out for his behavior toward her.

Her courage had consequences, though.

Within hours of her name becoming front page news, our founding editor Will Folks received an anonymous dossier containing a proverbial basketful of dirty laundry encompassing the last ten years of Russell’s personal romantic history.

“Character is like a picture, it develops in the dark,” the dossier ominously opined.

Is Russell’s past pretty?  No.  Does its “darkness” cast her in a sympathetic light?  Not really.  But does it detract one iota from the veracity of her story?  Or invalidate the evidence presented in support of what she said?  Again, no.  More importantly, does it in any way excuse the mistreatment and documented harassment she endured at the hands of her influential employer?

Hell no …

The dossier, while accurate in many of its assertions, seeks to discredit Russell by smearing her name and reputation – dredging up a previous affair/ office fling and a failed marriage.  Its objective?  To plant a news story that would destroy her credibility.

It is a classic ad feminam attack. “Slut-shaming,” in the modern parlance.

Of course it’s really more than that …

This hastily assembled file strikes us as the best evidence yet that Johnson – who is hoping Democratic primary voters in Richland and Kershaw counties will anoint him as their nominee for a third term in office next Tuesday – is scared to death of the truth Russell is telling.

Russell doesn’t deny her relationship history is convoluted.   She’s back together with a man she acknowledges having cheated on a decade ago – a dalliance which cost her a job.  She then married another man.  But now that marriage is over and she’s back where she started.

“It’s flow chart material,” she joked with us this weekend, scarcely twenty-four hours after one of the most painful chapters of her life was splashed across the pages of The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper.  “But I know about my past … and have made peace with it.”

And rather than sit back and let her attackers try to destroy her by painting her past in the worst possible light – Russell is fighting back, protecting the new life she was able to build for herself in spite of what she has endured (and what she will likely continue to endure as the Johnson scandal escalates over the coming weeks).

(Click to view)

(Via: Provided)

“If smoke and mirrors wants 10 minutes of fame – give her 20!” 

That’s the title of the dossier slamming Russell … an attempt to up the ante on Andy Warhol’s famous quote, “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.”

Interestingly, the initial focus of the document was John Monk – the reporter who authored last week’s story about Russell in The State.

“Mr. Monk is usually pretty good about doing his due diligence on investigative reporting, but he slipped a little on this particular story,” the dossier’s anonymous author noted. “I think a little history and current events about the ‘victim’ should be told.”

The dossier goes on to suggest that Monk’s paper might have paid Russell for her story (it didn’t).  It further alleges that Monk “strategically extracted” specific text messages provided by Russell (and another unnamed victim) to corroborate the allegations against Johnson.

In other words, the dossier is echoing Johnson’s contention that Monk’s article was “a personal political attack” based on “salacious smears.”

Look, we have no doubt Monk chose to highlight certain relevant exchanges for his readers – but there’s very little confusion as to the context of the text messages he chose to include in his story.

“I want to see you today sweetie.”

“Ur so hot …”

“I want to marry u …”

“Come have a drink with me.”

Dozens of other messages echo the same themes.

Johnson – who clearly needs to attend the Mark Sanford school of extramarital wooing – was repeatedly told by Russell that his flirtations were unwelcome and made her feel uncomfortable.  One summer day in 2012, for example, he told her he was going to come to her home to retrieve some files.

“If I have to come get them we may never leave the house,” he wrote.

“Now, we talked about this … how it makes me uncomfortable,” Russell responded.

As Monk pointed out in his story, not only did he verify the authenticity of the messages Johnson sent to Russell (and similar messages sent by the solicitor to at least one other woman) – he spoke with “others who they told about Johnson’s behavior at the time” and noted that “those witnesses backed up the women’s accounts.”

So … how is that a smear? 

It isn’t … which makes it vastly different from the dossier we were sent targeting Russell.

(Click to view)

(Via: Provided)

With little green checkmark boxes adorning a series of statements labeled “FACT,” the dossier delves into Russell’s tenure with the S.C. eleventh circuit solicitor’s office – where she worked from August of 2004 until April of 2011.  It’s got a doozy of a punch to throw, too.

“Ms. Russell was terminated by Solicitor Donnie Myers for having an extra martial affair with a colleague WHILE employed for Lexington County prior to working for Johnson,” the dossier alleges.

Is that true?  Yes.

“I did have an affair, and I was the only one who was fired for it,” Russell told us.

Russell declined to identify the male prosecutor with whom she had the four-year affair, although she did say their relationship was “widely known within the legal community.”  Multiple sources close to the eleventh circuit solicitor’s office identified her ex-lover as deputy solicitor Shawn Graham.

Graham remains employed by the eleventh circuit, incidentally.

Wait … what?

How does that work?

The last time we checked, if an extra-marital affair is to be grounds for termination, then both parties should be terminated.  If Russell lost her job over an extramarital dalliance, then Graham should have lost his job as well.  And frankly, the fact he didn’t lose his job should have been grounds for a lawsuit.

Anyway … that’s another story for another time …

The dossier further alleges that Russell was “terminated from Richland County as well.”  Once again, this claim is buttressed by the word “FACT” in all capital letters along with the familiar green checkmark box.

The only problem?  This allegation is demonstrably false.

Russell was hired by the S.C. fifth judicial circuit in June 2011 on a grant related to the prosecution of violent crimes.  She resigned from her position the following October – citing Johnson’s habitual harassment as her reason for stepping down.

“I wasn’t terminated from Richland – I quit.” Russell explained to us. “To escape the harassment from Dan Johnson, I walked away from my dream of being a career prosecutor.  I dove face first into an area of law where I had absolutely no experience – but I taught myself.  I didn’t even know how to run a business – but it was better than being harassed every day.”

“I jumped in face first just to get away from him,” she added.

According to Russell, during her time at the fifth circuit Johnson bombarded her with text messages that gradually escalating in their inappropriateness.

“I received hundreds of texts before I told him that they made me uncomfortable,” she said.  “They started off very innocuous, as if he was truly concerned about how I was adjusting to his office.  He would praise me for coming in and immediately pounding his old criminal sexual conduct cases in trial.  By the solicitor’s conference at the end of September 2011, though, is when (the texts) were clearly sexual in nature.”

As noted, Russell made it clear to Johnson his amorous advances were unwanted – but he still didn’t stop.

“After I told him that the attention – not just the texts, mind you – made me very uncomfortable, he sent about a hundred more messages,” she told us.

Russell wound up deleting most of the messages Johnson sent to her because in February of 2012, she began dating a retired Lexington County, S.C. sheriff’s deputy named Eric Russell (a man she would marry in October of 2012).

“When I started dating Eric, I erased the old batch and the subsequent ones because I feared that Eric would find them and he would want to kill Dan,” she explained.

Before long, Johnson discovered the object of his obsession was romantically involved with someone else – news that didn’t sit well with him.  At all.

(Click to view)

(Via: Provided)

That is when the solicitor appears to have engaged Russell in the same sort of stalking behavior that prompted a 2011 S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) investigation.  Remember that case?  We exclusively reported on it back in 2013, but the shocking details surrounding it weren’t unearthed until this year.

Again, exclusively by this news site.

In the 2011 case, Johnson stalked his estranged wife Kana Rahman using a GPS tracker that he placed on her vehicle.  At one point, he is alleged to have pulled a gun on Mario Martin, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who was having an affair with Rahman.

“I’ll put a bullet in you, motherf*cker,” Johnson allegedly screamed at Martin.

Wow …

Ultimately, Johnson faced no charges in connection with the 2011 SLED probe.  How come?  According to the report, Rahman recanted a story she originally told investigators that incriminated her ex-husband.

Anyway, in July of 2012 Johnson somehow managed to discover that Debra and Eric had paid a visit together to Sportsman’s Warehouse – a hunting and fishing outfitter located on Piney Grove road in northwest Columbia, S.C.  According to Debra Russell, they went to the store to get a gift card for Eric Russell’s son.

“After he received information about me and Eric, he sent me a very creepy text that said ‘how was Sportsmans warehouse’ – clearly in an attempt to be very intimidating,” she told us.

Take a look …

(Click to view)

(Via: Provided)

The fallout that followed was swift … and severe.

“I was removed from the grant program and assigned a general caseload,” Russell told us.  “He also decreased my salary by $20,000.”

Russell said she had no doubt her demotion – which reportedly took place within 48 hours of Johnson texting her about her whereabouts on July 12 – was connected to his awareness of her new relationship.

“We talked later the next day – July 13, 2012 – and he told me he did not know that I had a boyfriend,” she said.  “I told him that I did and he seemed sad about it.  The day after that (deputy solicitor) Dan Goldberg called me and relayed the demotion from ‘the Solicitor.’  So, yeah, I felt like the two went hand-in-hand.”

While Johnson seemed to resign himself to the fact that Russell had entered into a serious relationship – and wouldn’t be accommodating his desires – he didn’t completely stop corresponding with her after the demotion.  Nor did he stop sending her suggestive messages.

“Even after he demoted me … he continued to text me inappropriately but he gradually slowed down because at that point he was messaging me on my personal cell phone,” she told us.

According to her, the iPhone she had used for previous text exchanges with Johnson was tied to the grant program from which he removed her.

Given her history with Johnson, it should come as no surprise that Russell pulls no punches regarding her assessment of his conduct as solicitor.

“He is a predator who is no better than the criminals prosecuted by his office,” she told us, echoing comments made last week to The State.

Russell made similar comments in an interview two weeks ago with reporter Judi Gatson of WIS TV 10 (NBC – Columbia, S.C.) – however that story never aired.

What happened?  Good question …

We have heard reports that several local law enforcement leaders intervened on Johnson’s behalf to “spike” – or kill – the WIS TV report.

They may not be able to protect him for much longer, though …

State and federal agents are all over the embattled solicitor – and their investigation is reportedly making significant strides on multiple fronts.  In fact, Russell met with the FBI on May 18 – providing  extensive details of her experiences with Johnson as well as documentation to support her claims.

Of interest, the dossier attacking Russell suggests her FBI interview was preemptive in nature.

“This was NOT important until the FBI and SLED showed up to her office to ask questions,” the document alleges. “Which leads any educated and competent reader to ponder the possibility of the whole string of text messages being referenced in future depositions and litigation.  Is there more to this story on text and Ms. Russell needed a PR stunt to save face?”

One big problem with that theory?  Others allegedly victimized by the scandal-scarred solicitor have met with federal agents, too – and provided documentation for their claims as well.

(Click to view)

(Via: Provided)

Russell bristled at the suggestion she was preemptively attempting to generate some sort of public relations advantage to shield herself from an investigation.

“A PR stunt? I don’t need any PR,” she told us.  “I decided to go public BEFORE the feds came.”

According to her, the dossier’s allegations prove “the victim is now on trial.”

“My past made me the perfect victim,” she said.  “Who would believe me? (Johnson) picked out women he knew needed jobs.  He picked out women he knew had skeletons in their closets.  Given the fact that I knew my past would be brought up, I still had the courage to come out and talk about my experiences with Dan.”

Federal investigators are currently working in concert with SLED on a probe that began earlier this year with allegations about Johnson’s profligate spending as solicitor.  These investigations flow from his ongoing tiff with powerful Columbia, S.C. attorney Dick Harpootlian.  One of the most influential figures in Palmetto politics, Harpootlian is the driving force behind a Columbia, S.C.-based non profit organization called Public Access to Public Records (PAPR).  Several months ago, this group dumped a treasure trove of documents related to Johnson’s office online.  Specifically, this docu-dump included “audits, budgets, bank records, credit card statements, accounting records, check requests and receipts, and records pertaining to vendors tasked with managing programs that generate fees.”

News of these documents was also exclusively reported by this news site.

We’ve got a theory as to what might be driving Harpootlian, but ultimately his reasons for going after Johnson are irrelevant … what matters is what these documents have uncovered (taxpayer-funded expenditures by Johnson’s office on swanky parties, cab and Uber rides, club and gym memberships and hotel rooms all over the world).

This is fiscal malfeasance on a stunning scale – which along with Johnson’s alleged stalking and harassment of multiple women should be enough to seal his fate.

While a hammer seems destined to fall before much longer, nothing will happen prior to next week’s elections.

Johnson filed for a third four-year term back in March – waiting until the very last day possible to submit his paperwork.  He is running against local attorney Byron Gipson, and believe it or not his campaign is still receiving significant support in spite of the storm clouds hanging over him.

According to a story published this weekend by The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier, Johnson has emerged “mostly unscathed” from the litany of scandals.  In fact reporter Joseph Cranney said the investigation into Johnson “likely won’t erase his support in Midlands communities.”

Amazing …

As for Russell, she hopes justice will be served in Johnson’s case – but she says she is happy to have found her way back to the man she realizes she loved all along, her first husband Ben Moore.  And while she loves building her budding family law practice, part of her will always regret being forced out of the fifth circuit.

“I left my dream job,” she said.  “My dream was to be a prosecutor.  I still miss being the voice for victims that are scared to confront their perpetrators.”

Maybe she will get that chance again … but for now she has to continue being a voice for herself …

***

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