Will suspended longtime Lexington County Sheriff James Metts – facing federal charges of corruption in the handling of four illegal immigrants at the county jail – get a rare sweetheart deal from federal prosecutors that lets him avoid prison?
A plea bargain that would let Metts stay free is one possible outcome of Wednesday’s hastily called hearing at the U.S. courthouse in Columbia. A trial earlier had been set for Jan. 12.
Efforts to reach Metts’ lawyers, Sherri Lydon and Scott Schools, and r U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles about the purpose of Wednesday’s hearing before U.S. Judge Terry Wooten were unsuccessful. Ordinarily, federal court records specify the purpose of an upcoming hearing.
Any such deal to treat Metts lightly would have to be approved by Wooten, who has a reputation as a judge who will demand to know whether Metts is guilty and why prosecutors might want to drop or modify charges.
“Before the judge will accept a guilty plea, he’s got to be convinced, based on the law and the facts, that the person is actually guilty,” said John Crangle, executive director of the S.C. Common Cause, a citizens’ watchdog group.
In any case, it’s important for the public that all facts concerning any alleged wrongdoing by Metts are made public, Crangle said. “All the facts should be made known so the public can have confidence in what’s being done by the court.
Metts repeatedly has maintained his innocence.
His indictment in June alleged the sheriff took cash on numerous occasions to let illegal aliens out of his U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-approved jail. He could spend years in prison if found guilty of those charges.
Metts conspired in a get-rich scheme “to enrich himself by using and agreeing to use his official position, power and influence in exchange for cash” and then trying to cover it up, the indictment charges.
Metts, 68, was not only South Carolina’s longest-serving sheriff, having served nearly 42 years in that Lexington County post, but the matter involves illegal aliens – one of the nation’s most polarizing political issues. In getting the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement approval in 2010 to keep illegal aliens in his jail, Metts made public statements about how important it was to crack down on illegal immigration.
According to the indictment, Metts used his jail to profit from illegal aliens, taking cash from longtime associates to get certain illegal immigrants with connections released from his jail.
“When Metts was informed of an arrest and detention of an illegal alien ... Metts would contact his command staff and other employees to instruct that preferential treatment be provided to those specific illegal aliens,” his indictment charged. Four of Metts’ aides have since been dismissed.
Then, the indictment says, the illegal alien would be released and Metts would get money.
Metts is charged with multiple counts of conspiracy and accepting bribes and committing “the offense of obstructing proceedings before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security” by getting illegal aliens out of jail instead of allowing the federal govenrment to bring illegal aliens to justice.
Three other people face state charges in connection with Metts ’ indictment. They are former Lexington town Councilman Danny Frazier, 46, ex-South Congaree Police Chief Jason Amodio, 45, and Greg Leon, the 47-year-old owner of some San Jose Mexican restaurants in the Midlands. Frazier and Leon are accused of bribing the sheriff. Amodio is accused of being bribed by Frazier to release seized video gambling machines. No trial dates have been set.
Metts has been suspended since his indictment June 17. He is free on $100,000 bond after pleading not guilty.