Greg Leon, who played a key role in sending former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts to federal prison earlier this year, has agreed to plead guilty in federal court for hiring “unauthorized aliens,” according to papers filed in federal court.
Leon, 49, who operates a chain of Mexican food restaurants in Newberry, Lexington, Richland and Orangeburg counties, also has agreed to pay a fine of $180,000 to the federal government, according to court records.
The agreement also required Leon to plead guilty in state court “to paying a public official for assistance.”
Leon did that last week in circuit court in Orangeburg, when he pleaded guilty to paying money to get Metts to let undocumented Mexican workers who worked in his restaurants out of Metts’ jail.
In state court, Leon was sentenced to 200 hours of community service for paying the bribes to Metts.
Leon’s sentence in federal court will be determined at a later date.
Last week, one of Leon’s lawyers, Dick Harpootlian, told sentencing Judge Lawton McIntosh that Leon was ready to testify against Metts had Metts not agreed to plead guilty in federal court to allowing the release of illegal immigrants from his jail.
The new federal plea deal did not specify how many illegal immigrants Leon had hired. However, the government is allowed to fine Leon a maximum of $3,000 per person, so the number was likely at least 30. The plea deal said the illegal hiring began at some point in the past and stopped in 2013.
The charge to which Leon has agreed to plead guilty is punishable by a maximum of six months in jail. The agreement also requires Leon to cooperate with the government and tell law enforcement about “all criminal activities about which he has knowledge.”
Leon’s lawyer, Dick Harpootlian, declined comment Tuesday. “We haven’t been to court yet,” Harpootlian said.
Last week at Leon’s hearing in state court, state assistant attorney general Creighton Waters told the judge that Leon had operated restaurants in the Midlands for 30 years and “during that time, he primarily employed a number of undocumented immigrants.”
When an employee of Leon’s would get arrested in Lexington County, Leon on four occasions tried to get Metts to release him. At that time, Metts’ jail was authorized to accept and process undocumented aliens. Because of his position as sheriff, Metts had the power to intervene in the booking process and release someone.
Once, Leon left an envelope stuffed with $2,000 in cash on Metts’ desk, Waters said. Another time, Leon paid an intermediary, former Lexington town council member Danny Frazier, to give cash to Metts, Waters said.
Leon’s arrest was the result of a state-federal task force that included SLED, the FBI, ICE, the IRS and the S.C. Department of Revenue.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson, who is prosecuting the case in federal court, told McIntosh last week that once Leon “was in the crosshairs” of an investigation into Metts, Leon “very quickly came in and cooperated.”
Both state and federal prosecutors have said that because of Leon’s substantial cooperation, they urged leniency and no prison time.
Leon told Judge McIntosh he was born in Mexico, has eight children and four grandchildren and is a naturalized American citizen.
Another Leon attorney, Eric Bland, told the judge last week that Leon is a model citizen who came to America with little and now runs eight restaurants that employ more than 150 people.
“He’s an incredibly hard worker, a very religious man and a very charitable man. He supports five impoverished families in Lexington County; he sends back thousand and thousands of dollars to the town where he grew up, in San Jose de la Paz, in Mexico,” Bland said. “And he’s a big supporter of the Gamecocks.”
Bland said Leon “values his citizenship. I just think this was an aberrant period of time in his career as a citizen and as a businessman. I don’t think it will happen again.”