By: Jeremy Turnage
LEXINGTON, SC (WIS) - Lexington County Sheriff James R. Metts, one of the longest serving sheriffs in South Carolina history, has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of public corruption and accepting bribes.
In the news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office, the federal government says the 68-year-old Metts "accepted bribes from friends in return for using his position, power, and influence as Sheriff to interfere with the proper identification and processing" of undocumented immigrants.
The 10-count federal indictment alleges Metts received cash from former Lexington Town Councilman Danny Frazier and Gregorio Leon, the owner of several Mexican restaurants in the Columbia area, for circumventing a federal immigration program designed to aid the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement program in detaining those who were in the country illegally.
Frazier had been hired by the sheriff's department as a "business liaison", a role that had never been a position in the department before.
Federal investigators say that position allowed Frazier to serve as the middle man between Metts and Leon.
The indictments detail several instances between September 2011 and November 2011 where Leon would call Frazier and ask the councilman to talk to Metts about several undocumented immigrants who worked Leon that had been arrested by the Lexington County Sheriff's Department.
"When Metts was informed of an arrest and detention of an illegal alien working for Leon, Metts would contact his command staff and other employees to instruct that preferential treatment be provided to those specific illegal aliens," said the indictment.
The object, the indictment said, was to prevent those undocumented immigrants from being put in a federal database.
When the matters were settled, according to the indictment, Leon would provide Frazier with envelopes filled with cash to give to Metts.
Frazier, who resigned from his seat in January for reasons unrelated to the federal charges, was under a SLED investigation for his alleged involvement in a video poker ring.
Danny Frazier no stranger to Midlands residents
For his role in the alleged scheme, Frazier is facing state charges of "giving anything of value to influence action of a public official."
Frazier's name first bubbled to the top of public scrutiny when, in October, 2012, WIS obtained a recording of Frazier describing his involvement in involvement in a clandestine video poker business that operated machines throughout Lexington County and West Columbia.
At the time, Frazier was still working for the Lexington County Sheriff's Department.
WIS asked for a copy of Frazier's employment contract, job description, work schedule, access card swipes, pay stubs, and time sheets he submitted to Metts' payroll.
Metts later denied our request to look at and to copy the records. The reason, according to the Sheriff's Department, is that information is key to the State Law Enforcement Division's investigation into the Frazier video poker case.
We objected to the department's position, and asked the department to reconsider. In a second letter, Sheriff's Department spokesman Maj. John Allard wrote that Frazier's aces card records were not public, and everything else we asked for regarding the councilman would hurt SLED's investigation if the sheriff's department turned that over to us.
Our 2012 investigation showed that Frazier had ties to Metts and an elected official involving campaign contributions from businesses connected to the poker ring.
Metts himself requested SLED and the FBI investigate Frazier, whom he eventually suspended.
The sheriff also denied any involvement with any illegal activity.
Frazier resigned from council in January. Saying moving to a new home outside the town limits precluded him from serving the seat.
Frazier faces up to ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine, as well as a permanent disqualification from being a public official.
In all, Metts has been charged with conspiracy to violate federal law and interfere with government function, use of interstate facility to facilitate bribery in violation of South Carolina code, use of interstate wire to defraud the citizens of Lexington County of their right to honest services, and conspiracy to harbor undocumented immigrants.
Metts faces years in prison or hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines if he is convicted.
"Public corruption at any level will not be tolerated," said U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles.
Metts has remained silent on the allegations. However, a statement from his attorney, Sherri Lydon, says Metts "looks forward to his day in court."
State, local officials react to news
Members of Lexington County Council found out about Metts' indictment moments before their meeting Tuesday afternoon.
"He served the county well for over 40 years and the only thing we have to say is that we are all saddened and we wish him and his wife Carol the very best," said Councilman Johnny Jeffcoat.
The state Sheriff's Association also released a statement, saying they were saddened to learn of the indictments.
"It is important to let the judicial process play out in this scenario to ensure the public maintains trust not only in its elected leaders, but also the Lexington County Sheriff's Office," said the statement. "We stand ready to offer our full support and assistance to Interim Sheriff McCarty while this situation unfolds."
Metts suspended, Haley names interim sheriff
Gov. Nikki Haley suspended Metts after the indictment and quickly appointed his replacement.
Haley named Alfred "Lewis" McCarty, 72, as Lexington County's sheriff, effective immediately. McCarty is a Lexington County resident and served as assistant sheriff for Lexington County from Jan. 1, 1973 until Jun 30, 1999, when he retired after 37 years in law enforcement. He also served as a patrolman with the West Columbia Police Department starting in 1964 and worked his way up to lieutenant at his resignation in December 1972.
State law gives the governor authority to suspend an elected official of the state who has been indicted by a grand jury for a "crime involving moral turpitude." The suspension will continue until Metts is acquitted or the indictment is otherwise disposed of, or until a sheriff is elected and qualifies in the next general election for Lexington County's sheriff – whichever occurs first.
Metts, 68, has held the position as the state's longest serving sheriff.
McCarty graduated from the FBI National Academy in 1979. He has been involved with the S.C. Law Enforcement Officers Association, Lexington County Law Enforcement Officers Association, FBI National Academy Associates, National Sheriff's Association and Police Marksman Association.
The acting sheriff received numerous awards during his time in law enforcement, including the Strom Thurmond Award of Excellent in Law Enforcement.
In a statement released late Tuesday night, McCarty said he was honored to be appointed by the governor.
"We have great people employed here and we will maintain the highest professional standards this Department has been associated with in the past. I look forward to working with each and every one of you. My number one priority is maintaining integrity and public confidence in this Department," said McCarty.
40-year law enforcement career tarnished by allegations
Metts' time in office saw him earn a Ph.D in Education, several awards, and credit for firsts including hiring women as sworn personnel, hiring school resource officers and creating units to stop DUI and CDV.
Metts' work to track down 80's serial killer Larry Gene Bell inspired a made-for-TV movie.
While there were great moments in Metts' career, there were controversies as well.
In the late 90's, Metts launched a brief independent candidacy for governor after accusing then-Governor David Beasley of lying about taking down the Confederate flag.
He argued publicly with county council members over funding and had to defend himself from questions about video poker in his county.
Community reacts with mix of shock, cynicism
We talked to many people who both admired and did not like Metts. The reactions were spread across the board. Many who were in support of him as a leader were quiet to comment and they reserved their comment until they knew more. But people who did not agree with his leadership were quick to point out they didn't believe he did much for his immediate community and surroundings.
"I think we should have good officers, not just people who are willing to take bribes and sit there and do the wrong thing," said William Collins. "They're worried about the little crimes when they need to worry about the big stuff."
"I didn't know the sheriff was a bad guy, I thought he was really good because he kept up the properties here pretty good and then I go and find out he did this," said Angela Martin. "You don't know what to expect out of the police now. He was the longest serving sheriff! I am very disappointed and I'm quite sure the whole neighborhood is."
"When you're in politics, anything can happen," said Laverne Haygood. "It's sad to hear he has these charges against him. I hope he's vindicated. But we'll wait and see the outcome."
Metts is the first to find himself in this kind of trouble. He's the eighth sheriff in the past four years to face these types of allegations.
If convicted, Metts faces up to 20 years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
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