COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Lexington County Sheriff James R. Metts, the longest serving sheriff 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.
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.
In the meantime, Gov. Nikki Haley has suspended Metts as sheriff and appointed Alfred "Lewis" McCarty in his stead.
Metts has remained silent on the allegations. However, a statement from his attorney, Sherri Lydon, says Metts "looks forward to his day in court."
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."