US Atty. press release on indictment of Charles Sharpe
J. Strom Thurmond, Jr.
United States Attorney
District of South Carolina
United States Attorney J. Strom Thurmond, Jr.; Leslie Wiser, Special Agent-in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); Chief Robert Stewart, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED); and Charles Hunter, Special Agent-in-Charge, Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigations (IRS-CI) announced the indictments and arrests of South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture, Charles R. Sharpe, 67, of Wagener, South Carolina; and former SLED agent Keith Bernard Stokes, 40, of Lexington, South Carolina.
Mr. Thurmond stated that the charges in these cases were the result of a two-year undercover investigation conducted by agents of the FBI, SLED, IRS-CI and assisted by the Aiken County Sheriff's Department. Mr. Thurmond stated that this investigation was initiated at Chief Stewart's request. Chief Stewart received information in early 2002 concerning allegations of improper actions of an elected official and then-agent Stokes and immediately met with the FBI and requested that the FBI initiate an investigation. The investigation was eventually joined by the IRS-CI and the Aiken County Sheriff's Office.
The indictment charging Commissioner Sharpe consists of twelve counts: two (2) counts alleging extortion under color of law in violation of the Hobbs Act, Title 18, United States Code, Section 1951; seven (7) counts of money laundering, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1956(a)(1)(A)(i) and 1956(a)(1)(B)(i), as well as three counts of making false statements to federal law enforcement officials in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1001(a)(2). The sealed indictment was returned on July 28, 2004 by a federal grand jury sitting in Columbia and was unsealed this morning following Sharpe's arrest.
The indictment alleges that Sharpe, who served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1985 until late 2002 prior to being elected Commissioner of Agriculture in November 2002, solicited and received illegal payments from members of the South Carolina Gamefowl Management Association (SCGMA) and their associates. The SCGMA is an organization composed of persons interested and involved in the raising, breeding and fighting of gamefowl. Several SCGMA members and their associates ran a facility in Aiken County where they engaged in cockfighting. This business was initially called "The Testing Facility"; it later changed its name to "The Carolina Club."
The Sharpe indictment alleges that on or about September 26, 2002 and again on December 3, 2002, Sharpe illegally solicited and received payments from the SCGMA in violation of federal law. The indictment alleges that, in return for the payments, Sharpe agreed to assist the SCGMA in different ways, and that he attempted to intercede on SCGMA's behalf with local law enforcement. The indictment also alleges that on two separate dates in the Spring of 2003, Sharpe deliberately made false statements to Aiken Sheriff Michael Hunt in an attempt to convince Sheriff Hunt that activities at The Testing Facility were legal. The indictment also alleges that after he received an illegal $10,000.00 payment on December 3, 2002, Sharpe committed multiple acts of money laundering through financial institutions. The indictment finally alleges that on three separate occasions, Sharpe made material false statements to federal and state agents investigating his solicitation and acceptance of payments to the SCGMA.
Mr. Thurmond also stated that former SLED agent Keith Stokes was charged in a separate indictment alleging with two counts of making false statements to federal agents in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1001(a)(2). The Stokes indictment alleges that, on December 2, 2003 and on January 28, 2004, Stokes falsely denied that, while acting in an official capacity, he aided the members and associates of SCGMA by attempting to provide the SCGMA with information concerning the existence of an investigation into their activities. At the time he made these statements, Stokes was employed as a SLED agent.
Mr. Thurmond praised all of the law enforcement agencies involved for their cooperative efforts. Mr. Thurmond specifically thanked Sheriff Michael Hunt, who immediately approached SLED and the FBI when he became suspicious of Sharpe's overtures and agreed to cooperate with this investigation prior to his own election as Sheriff.
Mr. Thurmond stated that the maximum penalty Sharpe faces on Counts One through Nine is a maximum term of imprisonment of twenty (20) years, and maximum fines of $250,000 to $500,000 per count; terms of supervised release of up to 3 years per count; and special assessment of $100.00. On the false statement counts (Ten through Twelve) Sharpe faces a maximum term of imprisonment of not more than 5 years, a fine of not more than $250,000 plus a term of supervised release of 1 year in addition to a $100.00 special assessment on each count.
Mr. Thurmond stated that the maximum penalty Stokes can receive as to each count is a maximum term of imprisonment of not more than 5 years and/or a fine of not more than $250,000 plus a term of supervised release of 1 year in addition to a $100.00 special assessment fee.
The case was investigated by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigations, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the Aiken County Sheriff's Department. Assistant United States Attorneys Mark C. Moore, Jane B. Taylor, and Leesa Washington of the Columbia office are prosecuting the cases.
The United States Attorney stated that all charges in this Indictment are merely accusations and that all defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.