LEXINGTON COUNTY, SC — Lexington County deputies’ handling of illegal immigrants has been suspended in the wake of charges that former Sheriff James Metts took bribes so four restaurant workers could work instead of face deportation, federal officials said Tuesday.The authority of sheriff’s deputies to identify illegal immigrants taken to the county jail is “on hold” indefinitely due to the charges, said Vincent Picard, spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But use of the Lexington County jail to house illegal immigrants continues, Picard said, with federal agents now handling ICE operations there.
The suspension of local deputies for those operations will last “until further notice,” Picard said. It’s not clear how many local deputies took part in the partnership with ICE officials, which was established in 2010.
New Sheriff Lewis McCarty dismissed four top Metts aides after taking charge June 18. The firings came after what the indictment alleges is “preferential treatment” shown the four immigrants that Metts arranged through contact with unidentified “command staff” and officers.
Officials at the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department declined comment Tuesday, other than to say no one was laid off due to the suspension.
Through mid-June, Lexington County received about $205,000 in reimbursements during the past three years for care of immigrants at the jail, county administrator Joe Mergo said. It’s not a money-maker, he said, of the $55-per-inmate daily payments.
No count is kept on the number of immigrants handled in Lexington County and elsewhere, Picard said.
The federal suspension of handling immigrant identification comes as Metts battles a 10-count federal indictment charging him with misconduct in office for allegedly accepting payments in exchange for helping four immigrants return to work in restaurants in 2011.
Metts, 67, is free on $100,000 bond awaiting trial after pleading not guilty July 1 and denying the allegations of federal prosecutors. Metts is suspended without pay from the post he held nearly 42 years.
If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison plus fines of up to $250,000.
County Council chairman Johnny Jeffcoat said Tuesday the ICE suspension is not surprising, given the misconduct alleged.
A State Grand Jury has charged restaurant owner Greg Leon with paying the bribes and charged former Lexington Town Councilman Danny Frazier with relaying two of the four payments. Frazier also is accused to paying former South Congaree Police Chief Jason Amodio in exchange for what federal prosecutors allege was the release of gambling machines seized by town police. Amodio is charged with accepting the payments.
Leon, Frazier and Amodio are free on $50,000 bond each.
Frazier worked a few months as a part-time consultant to Metts in 2012 and was a political ally of some leaders in South Congaree, a community of 2,300 residents near Columbia Metropolitan Airport. Frazier also had relatives in the once-legal video poker industry.
The charges are the first in what South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office says is an ongoing investigation. Some officials say the probe began as an examination of illegal gambling before it spread into other areas.
Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483