Suspended Lexington County Sheriff James Metts knew he was a target of federal investigators at least a year ago, when he approached a law enforcement support group and county leaders for help with his legal battle, officials say.
Metts was rebuffed after sounding out the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers Association and some County Council members about their willingness to provide aid, officials say.
His inquiries about aid occurred well before before Metts’ indictment June 17 for misconduct in office.
“There is nothing improper about the sheriff making these inquiries,” said Sherri Lydon, one of two attorneys representing Metts. “In fact, it is fairly common for our clients to make similar inquiries.”
Lydon acknowledged that Metts knew of the investigation “for over a year.”
Those familiar with the conversations with Metts characterized them as informal inquiries that went nowhere.
Metts’ contact with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers Association in mid-2013 “never got that far” since it didn’t meet the standards required for assistance from the organization, former executive director Jerrod Bruder said.
Association procedures allow legal help be given officers “in meritorious defense in performance of their duties,” Bruder said.
No similar request for help came from other sheriffs in South Carolina recently facing federal charges for misconduct in office, Bruder said.
Metts knew that the association sometimes provides aid.
He is a former leader of the organization, and the deputies he supervised during nearly 42 years as sheriff are members, said Bruder, now deputy director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association.
Some Lexington County Council members say Metts also extended feelers last fall about assistance.
“I’ve been told by other council members (a request for aid) was made,” Councilman Brad Matthews of St. Andrews said. “It was pretty much no-go from the beginning. If it’s your own personal legal issue, you take care of it on your own.”
Councilman Bobby Keisler of Red Bank also said, “I was told he (Metts) mentioned it” to some council members.
Matthews and Keisler said they were not among those contacted directly by Metts.
“In this case, the sheriff was uncertain as to whether the SCLEO or the county covered the fees, so he inquired,” Lydon said.
The revelation of the inquiries about financial help come after federal prosecutors say Metts recently took out two mortgages totaling $600,000 on his home. Metts’ lawyers have declined to explain the move.
Metts’ net worth is more than $500,000, prosecutors have said.
He and his wife currently own eight properties, including a home assessed for tax purposes at $332,030.
Metts is charged with taking bribes to get illegal immigrants out of the county jail he once supervised so they could return to work in restaurants instead of facing deportation.
He is free on $100,000 bond after pleading not guilty. No trial date has been set.
If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.
Metts is suspended without pay from the $117,400-a-year post. His former chief aide Lewis McCarty is serving as interim sheriff.