Originally created 11/04/04

Ex-agent pleads guilty in case of cockfighting



COLUMBIA - A former state agent has pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators looking into whether South Carolina's agriculture commissioner took payoffs to protect a cockfighting ring.

As part of a plea deal, Keith Stokes, 40, agreed Tuesday to help federal prosecutors.

In exchange, authorities agreed to not pursue criminal charges against members of his family and his sentence could be reduced, assistant U.S. attorney Jane Taylor said.

In court Tuesday, the former State Law Enforcement Division agent admitted he lied to FBI agents when he denied checking to see whether SLED was investigating a cockfighting ring.

Mr. Stokes had called another agent, then the cockfighting group to tell them they weren't under investigation, Ms. Taylor said.

Mr. Stokes will be sentenced in two to three months, Ms. Taylor said.

He faces a maximum punishment of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count. There is no minimum sentence.

The Aiken County arena used in the cockfighting ring was raided a year ago and more than 100 people were charged with participating in a cockfight.

The raid led agents to Agriculture Commissioner Charles Sharpe, who authorities say accepted at least $20,000 from an organization connected to cockfighting.

Mr. Sharpe has pleaded not guilty to extortion, money laundering and other charges. His trial is scheduled to begin in January.

Mr. Sharpe has been suspended from his job and will lose his office under state law if convicted. His lawyers could not be reached for comment.

It's too early to tell whether Mr. Stokes will be called on to testify against Mr. Sharpe. But under the plea agreement, Mr. Stokes must help authorities, Ms. Taylor said.