U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said Tuesday that the 68-year-old Lexington County Sheriff James Metts faces 10 charges of taking bribes. He is also charged with wire fraud and conspiracy.
Court documents say Metts allowed friends to buy favors, accepting cash in return for agreeing to assist people who were in the country illegally and who were being detained. The indictment detailed several phone calls between Metts and a former Lexington Town councilman, who was acting as a go-between for the owner of several Mexican restaurants. Metts accepted a cash in exchange for keeping some of the restaurants’ employees from ending up in federal databases of immigrants who weren’t supposed to be in the U.S.
In office since 1972, the Republican has received a number of awards, including the Order of the Palmetto and the Order of the Silver Crescent, and is up for re-election in 2016. It wasn’t immediately known whether he was in custody.
His lawyer, Sherri Lydon, issued a statement on his behalf. “Sheriff Metts has dedicated his life to law enforcement and serving the citizens of Lexington County. He denies the allegations and looks forward to his day in court,” she wrote.
Gov. Nikki Haley suspended Metts about an hour after the indictments were released and appointed Lewis McCarty, who retired in 1999 after nearly 30 years with the Lexington Department, as the acting sheriff.
Metts began his law enforcement career as a dispatcher with the West Columbia Police Department in 1967. In 1972, at the age of 25, Metts became the youngest sheriff ever elected in the nation, according to his online biography, and has served ever since in the heavily Republican county outside Columbia.
He was named South Carolina’s sheriff of the year in 1982.
In 1998, he pondered a GOP primary challenge to then-Gov. David Beasley – whom he had helped get elected four years earlier – and even mulled running as an independent before ultimately supporting the incumbent.
The sheriff’s ties to video gambling date to that campaign, during which he advocated a statewide referendum on the issue and received contributions from video gambling interests. Metts said he’d return the contributions after disbanding his campaign, and state lawmakers ultimately banned video gambling in 2000.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office wasn’t available for additional comment Tuesday.
Metts is the eighth South Carolina sheriff to be charged or investigated in about four years and at least the fourth accused of taking kickbacks.