Former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts ended a long career in disgrace Tuesday, pleading guilty to one federal felony charge of conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants.
Tuesday’s guilty plea came after U.S. Judge Terry Wooten rejected an earlier plea deal Dec. 17, agreed to by prosecutors and defense attorneys, that would have shielded Metts from a prison sentence.
Wooten will sentence Metts at a future date, making it clear – without saying specifically – that the former sheriff likely will be given time in prison. He could face 10 months to 10 years on the charge. No sentencing date has been set.
After questioning attorneys on both sides Tuesday about the facts and evidence, Wooten tentatively accepted the revised plea deal, calling the ex-sheriff’s charge of illegal interference with federal immigration procedures “extremely serious.” As part of the deal, nine other charges against Metts were dropped.
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‘If you are sentenced to prison, you will not be released on parole, do you understand that?” Wooten warned Metts at one point in the 80-minute hearing.
“Yes,” the 68-year-old Metts said.
At times, Metts seemed near tears, such as when Wooten said, “Are you entering a plea today of your own free will?”
His voice quivering, Metts answered after a long pause, “Your Honor, I am entering a plea today of my own free will. Yes, your Honor.”
Wooten had to ask Metts twice whether he in fact did what federal prosecutors say he did – illegally intervene to allow two immigrants to escape processing at the jail.
“You admit that is what you did?” the judge asked
“Yes sir, I do,” Metts finally said, then added under questioning, “I am pleading guilty because I am in fact guilty.”
Metts also admitted interfering to make sure the immigrants’ presence was never reported to U.S. Immigration and Enforcement officials – meaning their backgrounds were not checked against federal computerized records for serious criminal offenses.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson told the judge Metts was pleading guilty to the strongest count prosecutors said they had – a charge that Metts conspired with two other men to get two immigrants unlawfully released from the jail he once supervised in September and November 2011.
According to Richardson, evidence to prove that count comes from Metts himself during pre-indictment interviews with the FBI; from alleged co-conspirators, former Lexington Town Councilman Danny Frazier and restaurant operator Greg Leon; from Metts’ command staff who took his orders to let the immigrants out of jail; from phone and bank records; and from a jail log book, one of whose entries said, “Released per Sheriff Metts.”
Metts’ lawyer Scott Schools told Wooten he agreed conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants was the strongest count.
“We feel that if this case were to go to trial, we could win every other count,” Schools said. “But the 10th count is provable.”
Schools also told Wooten that the bribery-related charges were “not strong” and rested on shaky testimony from Frazier and Leon, whom the lawyer characterized as giving “wildly inconsistent” accounts.
But, Schools said, the conspiracy charge would be difficult to challenge because Metts acknowledged the unauthorized release of the immigrants and there are records of phone calls among Metts, Leon and Frazier indicating conversations took place about those releases. Frazier and Leon face state charges of offering bribes to Metts. No trial date has been set in their cases.
“We are very confident in those witnesses,” Richardson said, “but not blindly so.”
Richardson said prosecutors “remain very confident” in all 10 charges, but noted “anytime you bring a case to trial there is a risk,” especially when there are no wiretaps or videotapes.
Schools told Wooten that Metts has no criminal history, has an unblemished record and modernized the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department during nearly 42 years as sheriff.
Until June when he was indicted, Metts was South Carolina’s longest-serving sheriff.
‘It’s a calling for him; it’s what he lives to do,” Schools said.
Wooten will delay sentencing until after he receives a report by the U.S. Probation office. The review could include evidence concerning bribes allegedly given to Metts as well as facts concerned Metts’ health and age that might affect the severity of any sentence he gets. Any sentence could include a stint in a halfway house, as well as prison. Metts’ lawyers could dispute any evidence at the sentencing hearing.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles told the judge that Tuesday’s plea deal is the “appropriate resolution of this case.”
But one Lexington County lawmaker said it is too lenient.
“It leaves a bad taste when we let any elected official plead out, get a deal,” State Sen. Katrina Shealy of Red Bank said. “When you’ve been a lawmaker or elected official and then a lawbreaker, you ought to be held to the same standards as everybody else.”
Metts was indicted June 17 on 10 federal felony counts, most of which charged he profited from release of some illegal immigrants detained at the county jail. According to the indictment, Metts took cash from longtime associates Frazier and Leon to get illegal immigrants who worked at Leon’s restaurants released.
In 2010, Metts won federal approval to keep illegal immigrants in his jail and made public statements about how important it was to crack down on illegal immigration.
The Lexington County jail was one of three dozen in the nation authorized to hold and process undocumented immigrants – though federal officials suspended the agreement after Metts was indicted. Officials say they will assess whether to renew ties after the outcome of his case.
After his indictment, Metts was suspended from office and stepped down in mid-December. He is free on $100,000 bond.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Wooten made it clear he will not give Metts’ plea final approval until he gets the pre-sentence investigation back from the probation officers.
After the hearing, Metts gave his wife Carol a kiss on the forehead and then shook hands with Nettles and assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May.
“Good luck, sir,” May said.
Metts’ departure sets the stage for voters to pick a new sheriff for the first time in two generations. Four candidates – all Republicans so far – are running in a contest that will be settled by mid-April.
Interim Sheriff Lewis McCarty – a former top Metts aide appointed to the post until the ballot occurs – said Metts’ guilty plea doesn’t reflect on deputies and county law enforcement.
“Our employees did not let adverse circumstances hinder their ability to provide professional law enforcement services,” McCarty said.
Nettles later released a statement about the day’s events.
“Prior to June he was Sheriff James Metts, the 42-year veteran sheriff of Lexington County,” Nettles said. “When we finish, he will leave this courthouse Jimmy Metts, the felon, and the citizens of Lexington County can move forward.”