Suspended Lexington County Sheriff James Metts resigned Tuesday after agreeing to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants.
A secret deal between Metts and prosecutors that would allow him to avoid a prison sentence became public Tuesday after U.S. Judge Terry Wooten ordered lawyers to disclose their plans prior to a quickly called hearing Wednesday.
Metts, 68 and the state’s longest-sitting sheriff, had vowed to fight the charges. He faced up to 10 years behind bars if found guilty in a trial that was to begin Jan. 12. The judge still must sign off on the proposed deal.
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Wooten on Wednesday will hear lawyers on both sides explain the guilty plea and why Metts, who was in charge of a federal effort in the Midlands to find illegal immigrants, should escape a prison sentence after he was charged with taking bribes to let four go free.
“It’s a sad end to his career,” said state Rep. Kenny Bingham, a Cayce Republican.
Metts told the governor he was retiring. No details were available about whether his pension would be affected by the plea deal.
Metts’ resignation opens the way for a new sheriff to be chosen by county voters next spring, the first time in more than 40 years that his name will not appear on the ballot.
That election will take place regardless of what happens with the proposed plea bargain.
Under the deal, all other charges would be dismissed against Metts, with prosecutors recommending three years of probation. The charge to which Metts is pleading guilty is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years and a $250,000 fine.
Shortly after the plea deal became public Tuesday morning, Metts sent a brief letter to Gov. Nikki Haley immediately resigning the post he held nearly 42 years.
Metts allegedly violated U.S. Department of Homeland Security standards by taking bribes to let illegal immigrants be freed from the county jail he once supervised, according to a 10-count indictment handed down June 17. The immigrants were illegally here from Mexico, according to court filings and lawyers’ statements.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles declined to explain why his office agreed to let someone accused of public corruption and violating serious national security policies dodge prison. Targeting public corruption is one of Nettles’ priorities.
“It is Department of Justice policy not to comment on pending matters,” Nettles said.
If Metts avoids prison after allegedly violating national security laws, he will get off easier than former Union County sheriff Howard Wells, who pleaded in 2010 in to a charge of lying to federal investigators. Wells lied about hiding taxable income. He received three months in prison, three years’ supervised release and $7,500 in fines and restitution.
The Metts plea agreement:
• Does not prohibit him from running again for public office.
• Does not provide details of how much money Metts made by letting the four out of his jail – a charge alleged in his indictment.
• Does not require Metts to help law enforcement by telling agents about other crimes he might have knowledge of. Plea agreements are often contingent upon the person getting a light sentence helping federal prosecutors.
• Does not require Metts to take a lie-detector test. Plea agreements often require the person getting a light sentence to take lie-detector tests.
However, as a convicted felon, Metts would not be able to own guns and could not vote.
And some county leaders say his career in politics is finished. “This apparently brings that to a close,” Bingham said.
The deal between prosecutors and defense lawyers was finalized Dec. 5, according to the filings. Metts signed the deal that day.
“Both parties agree that the appropriate disposition of this case is a sentence of three years probation,” the proposed plea deal says.
Wooten does not have to accept the no-prison deal if he believes it is not appropriate.
The Wednesday hearing was scheduled suddenly on Friday and speculation about a plea deal surfaced immediately among court watchers. Wooten on Tuesday morning ordered lawyers to disclose what they would discuss in the hearing.
Had Wooten not ordered the filing to be made public, he might have seen the deal for the first time at the hearing Wednesday.
It’s unclear why the federal case changed from what appeared to be a carefully constructed major prosecution in a high-profile public corruption case with multiple witnesses and documented evidence to a quick plea deal that allows Metts to go free.
Metts was charged with infractions against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its immigration arm, for whom Metts agreed to keep illegal immigrants in his jail.
His indictment charged the sheriff on four occasions took bribes from Greg Leon, a Midlands restaurant owner, and ordered his jailers to free unidentified immigrants who worked in Leon’s restaurants.
‘My honor and privilege’
The investigation that led to Metts’ indictment began in 2009, according to earlier court testimony.
After his indictment, Metts was suspended from the sheriff’s post, which paid him more than $117,000.
In his resignation letter, Metts wrote, “It has been my honor and privilege to have served the citizens of Lexington County as their sheriff for the past 42 years and and a law enforcement officer for the past 48 years.”
Leon and former Lexington Town Councilman Danny Frazier, who officials said delivered the money to Metts, were expected to be key witnesses.
“The information Danny would testify about would certainly be very damning to Sheriff Metts,” Frazier lawyer Jim Griffin said Tuesday.
Frazier is a longtime Metts political ally who was briefly on the sheriff’s payroll in 2012 as a consultant.
Leon’s lawyer, Dick Harpootlian, said, “All I can say is my client fully cooperated with state and federal authorities.”
Leon owns some but not all San Jose restaurants in the Midlands.
Both Leon and Frazier have been indicted by a State Grand Jury in connection with the payments to Metts.
In September 2010, specially trained deputies began enforcing federal immigration standards under a deal that enabled them to identify criminal and illegal immigrants they encounter and initiate removal proceedings.
After Metts’ indictment, federal officials suspended reliance on county deputies to detain illegal immigrants.
“I hope the citizens of Lexington County can now find some closure to a very difficult situation and begin the process of finding the appropriate individual who can regain their trust,” Clerk of Court Beth Carrigg said.