THERE’S NO joy in seeing a long-serving public official such as former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts crumble in disgrace.
But no one is above the law. And when elected officials lose sight of their duty to serve the people and begin serving themselves — whether by committing corrupt acts, engaging in self-dealing or breaking the law — it’s in the public’s interest that they step aside or be removed.
Mr. Metts, the longest serving sheriff in South Carolina, is innocent until proven guilty. But while his legal fate is unclear as he continues to face charges of accepting bribes and misconduct in office, his resignation and willingness to accept a plea deal — albeit one rejected by a judge — speak volumes.
Although Mr. Metts did much good in the four decades he served as Lexington County’s top law officer, he got off course somewhere along the way. And for that he has rightly lost the position that easily made him the most powerful person in Lexington County, a position he almost certainly will never be able to regain.
We don’t know whether Mr. Metts deserves prison time if he is convicted or ultimately allowed to plead guilty, but U.S. Judge Terry Wooten is so convinced that the crimes the former sheriff agreed to plead guilty to should carry a strong penalty that he rejected a deal that called for three years probation and no prison time. “Conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens is a serious charge,” the judge said. He also said he couldn’t ignore the fact that Mr. Metts was a public official.
Judge Wooten told both sides to prepare for trial. Mr. Metts faces 10 counts of accepting bribes and misconduct in office for allegedly interfering with the handling of illegal immigrants at the county jail he once supervised.
For sure, we were surprised at how lenient the failed agreement appeared; it didn’t even carry the standard agreement that Mr. Metts would fully cooperate and share information with the government.
We can’t help but wonder to what degree Mr. Metts’ immense power in Lexington County played a role in opening a door to his troubles. His authority was virtually unchecked, giving him tremendous leeway. Not only did he run the sheriff's department — where he hired and fired at will — but he managed the jail and served as director of homeland security. As homeland security director — a position bestowed upon him by Lexington County Council in 2003 — he oversaw all public safety departments, including EMS and fire.
Mr. Metts enjoyed unprecedented freedom in operating his budget when the council agreed to allocate funds for law enforcement and jail operations as a lump sum, giving him the ability, if he wanted, to reduce the number of jail guards and use that money to hire more deputies.
But this case demonstrates once again that no one — regardless of position or power — is above the law. And whether Mr. Metts gets prison time or not, he has already received a severe and necessary penalty: the loss of the office voters entrusted to him.