Here’s what’s clear in the aftermath of the rejection of a proposed plea agreement for former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts on federal corruption charges related to interfering in detention of illegal immigrants at the county jail he once supervised:
Both sides are preparing for trial Jan. 12. Another plea agreement could be offered before that, again with the decision on approval up to U.S. Judge Terry Wooten.
Constitutional rights against self-incrimination do not allow it.
Assistant U.S. attorney Jay Richardson called the case against Metts “very strong” in a court hearing Wednesday.
What Metts did “tarnished the badge” that law enforcement officials wear, Richardson said.
But Metts’ lawyers make it clear their strategy will be to attack two main witnesses against him, former Lexington Town Councilman Danny Frazier and restaurant operator Greg Leon.
Frazier and Leon “have serious, serious credibility issues,” Metts lawyer Sherri Lydon said at the hearing.
Both have told “stories that vary from each other,” she said.
In addition, she said, there are “lies both witnesses have told regarding other public officials.”
Leon is under indictment for bribing Metts to free four restaurant workers who in the country illegally and were detained. Frazier was indicted for delivering the money to Metts.
Frazier created a political firestorm in mid-2012 when he talked with online gaming interests about ways to make online gambling possible in the Midlands. He resigned from council in January.
Leon, who owns some of the Columbia area’s San Jose restaurants, previously has been fined for cockfighting and forced to pay back wages to employees after federal labor officials found overtime, minimum wage and record-keeping violations at his eateries.
In explaining the proposed plea bargain, Richardson said that Metts’ interference in the handling of illegal immigrants was “limited in scope, limited in impact.”
The June indictment accused the former Lexington County sheriff of taking bribes passed along by Frazier to free four of Leon’s workers from the county jail that Metts formerly supervised before the workers were processed in fall 2011 for four separate traffic offenses.
Richardson said the improper releases happened on two occasions. Metts couldn’t help quickly enough on two other occasions, he said.
Metts finally accepted the offer of prosecutors to plead guilty to the charge of conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants that had been in place before his indictment June 17 with a recommendation of probation, Richardson said.
“This was the plea the government offered from the very beginning,” Richardson said.
Interim Sheriff A. Lewis McCarty continues to serve until a new sheriff is elected. The primary elections are March 3, with the general ballot scheduled for April 21, election officials say. The next sheriff takes over shortly after that.
He continues to receive it because the charges he faces don’t involve the taking of taxpayers’ money – or public embezzlement. The amount he receives is confidential. But the pension stopped increasing once he was suspended from office without pay June 17, according to Megan Lightle, spokeswoman for the State Retirement System.
That’s up to state lawmakers from Lexington County who ordered it and can change it.
Compiled by Tim Flach and John Monk