In an increasingly complicated tit-for-tat, Democratic state Rep. Wendell Gilliard and former Democratic state Senate candidate Maurice Washington have been accusing each other of unethical campaign practices in a special primary election that’s long since finished.
After weeks of escalation, here’s where they stand: Gilliard claims that Washington offered him $25,000 in exchange for an endorsement in the primary, while Washington claims that Gilliard demanded to be paid $27,000 for an endorsement. The primary is over and Washington is out of the running, but Gilliard is still involved in the general election as a supporter of Marlon Kimpson, the candidate who beat Washington in the primary.
It all started on May 31, when Democratic state Sen. Robert Ford resigned from the Charleston-area District 42 Senate seat amid a Senate Ethics Committee investigation in which he was accused of diverting nearly $20,000 worth of campaign funds into a personal account and spending the money on items including adult store purchases. Ford had held the seat for two decades, and his resignation opened up a crowded special primary election for the Democrats. Two of the six contenders, the attorney Kimpson and the financial consultant Washington, led the fundraising race and started sparring in the weeks leading up to the Aug. 13 primary.
Ford, who had previously described Washington as “a faithful and dedicated Republican since 1984” in a letter to supporters, nevertheless threw his endorsement behind Washington in the Democratic primary. Meanwhile, Kimpson racked up the endorsements, rallying a big base of supporters including County Councilwoman Colleen Condon, International Longshoremen’s Association President Ken Riley, philanthropist and businesswoman Linda Ketner, and state Reps. David Mack, Leon Stavrinakis, and Seth Whipper.
As a cherry on top of the endorsement sundae, Kimpson also received a nomination nod from Democratic state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a former Charleston City Council member who had at one point considered running himself for the District 42 Senate seat. But as Washington pointed out in the run-up to the primary, Gilliard wasn’t just an elected official throwing his support behind a candidate — he was also a political consultant whose company was receiving thousands of dollars in service fees from the Kimpson campaign. In fact, on the same day Kimpson announced the Gilliard endorsement, state ethics filings show that Kimpson paid Gilliard’s company $5,000. “I thought that was disingenuous and misleading,” Washington said at the time.
Then Washington went a step further and accused Gilliard of asking for payment in exchange for an endorsement. “I was approached by Rep. Gilliard for pay, and I refused to pay him for his endorsement or his support,” Washington said. A story on the controversy ran in the City Paper on Aug. 21 with a note that Gilliard had not responded to requests for comment. Kimpson and Washington took top positions in the primary race and faced each other again in an Aug. 27 runoff, which Kimpson won handily.
Finally, on Aug. 30, Gilliard called the City Paper to offer his side of the story. “That story you wrote was untrue,” he said. “I gave audience to three out of the six hopefuls because everybody who ran the numbers, they know I could have beaten anybody two to one, and everybody was seeking me for my endorsement.”
Gilliard said he ultimately endorsed Kimpson not because of the money, but because he thought Kimpson was the right candidate. He said that Washington, on the other hand, tried to buy his endorsement. “[Washington] had a check for $25,000, he wanted me to endorse him, and he told me that if he had my endorsement and Sen. Ford’s endorsement, he could plow the field,” Gilliard said. “And I told Maurice it wasn’t about money; it was about the people I had to represent and the person we had to elect in the district that would be an actual Democrat. I told Maurice to his face I see him as a Republican.”
So the City Paper checked in with Washington, who at the time was still licking his wounds from a loss in the runoff. “I’ve never offered Mr. Gilliard any amount of money for his professional or public support or services,” Washington said.
And then he returned fire.
Elaborating on his previous claim that Gilliard demanded payment for an endorsement, Washington said that Gilliard sent a local political consultant, Brandon Upson, to meet with him at the IHOP near North Charleston’s Tanger Outlets about a potential endorsement deal. He says Upson originally named a price of $15,000, but at a later meeting, Upson relayed that the price had gone up to $27,000 for a combined consulting and endorsement package.
Washington says he knew from the start of the back-and-forth that Gilliard wanted payment in exchange for an endorsement. Asked why he didn’t shut down the conversation at the beginning, Washington said he was trying to gather evidence of foul play on Gilliard’s part. “I really was trying to get the document in hand to have proof he was trying to shake me down,” he says. Washington was not able to provide the City Paper with documentation of the deal.
Gilliard, in turn, denied this story. “I’m not going to get in an ass-kicking contest with a donkey,” Gilliard said.
Asked for comment on the back-and-forth between Washington and Gilliard, Marlon Kimpson said he was not familiar with the situation and did not want to comment. However, one witness confirmed Washington’s story: Brandon Upson, the alleged go-between who eventually took a job as a campaign consultant for Washington.
Upson is a young consultant who moved from Aiken four years ago to attend the College of Charleston and worked on Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr’s most recent re-election campaign. Asked about Washington’s claim, he confirms that Gilliard was looking to sell both his services as a consultant and his endorsement as a public official. “At one point in time, it did go up to $27,000,” Upson says.
But the actual amount of money Gilliard has made in consulting fees in this election is much less than $27,000. With the special election against Republican Billy Shuman and Libertarian Alex Thornton coming up on Oct. 1, Kimpson reported his latest campaign expenditures to the State Ethics Commission Monday night. The total amount paid to Gilliard’s consulting company, WGG Consulting, was $13,350.
“This campaign here — I’ve worked on a number of them here in Charleston, but this has been the craziest campaign I’ve ever worked on,” Upson says. “I guess this is how they do politics here in Charleston.”