Former South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Charles Sharpe pleaded guilty Thursday to federal charges of extortion and lying to state and federal agents in connection with an undercover investigation of an Aiken County cockfighting club.
Facing a trial next week on a 12-count federal indictment, Mr. Sharpe, 66, a long-time Republican lawmaker from Wagener, changed his plea Thursday afternoon in federal district court in Columbia, admitting guilt on two of the charges, federal prosecutors said.
Mr. Sharpe faces a maximum 25-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine, but as part of the plea agreement prosecutors have recommended a more lenient sentence of 24 to 30 months, federal prosecutors said.
"I am truly sorry for my error in judgment and ask for forgiveness," Mr. Sharpe told U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie.
His plea covered one of the central charges against him - that he accepted an illegal $10,000 contribution from the South Carolina Gamefowl Management Association in return for helping the owners of the Carolina Club cockfighting pit avoid legal trouble. Prosecutors said he never disclosed this contribution and used the money to pay campaign debts from his 2002 run for agriculture commissioner.
That help included lobbying former interim Aiken County Sheriff Jody Rowland and Aiken County Sheriff Mike Hunt during two separate meetings.
Both officers were acting as undercover agents, wearing wires to covertly record Mr. Sharpe as he attempted to explain that cockfights at the club were legal as long as they were labeled as testing for breeding purposes, said Mark Moore, the lead federal prosecutor in the case.
Mr. Sharpe also pleaded guilty to lying to FBI and South Carolina Law Enforcement agents when asked whether he told Sheriff Hunt and Mr. Rowland that an attorney general's advisory opinion said cockfighting was legal if the animals were being "tested" for gameness and stamina.
In return for Mr. Sharpe's plea reversal, prosecutors agreed to drop the other charges against him. He will be sentenced after a pre-sentencing report has been completed, which will take 60 to 90 days, said Mr. Moore.
Mr. Sharpe was suspended from office after his indictment this summer. Gov. Mark Sanford appointed an interim agriculture commissioner in September.
In November, former South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Agent Keith Stokes pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents when asked whether state law enforcement was investigating the cockfighting ring. Mr. Stokes awaits sentencing.
In November 2003, the Carolina Club, also known as The Testing Facility, was raided in rural eastern Aiken County and more than 100 people were charged with participating in a cockfight, a misdemeanor under South Carolina law.
Mr. Sharpe, who served 17 years as a Republican state lawmaker and led the House Agriculture Committee, is a fixture in Aiken County politics. He is married to Aiken County Treasurer Linda Sharpe, who is also a Republican.
"Charley has admitted his guilt and his actions," defense attorney Jim Griffin said. "It put him in harm's way during the investigation. We are not claiming he was singled out."
Mr. Moore praised Mr. Row-land and Sheriff Hunt, both involved in a heated 2003 contest for Aiken County sheriff, for volunteering to serve as undercover agents in the investigation immediately after being approached by Mr. Sharpe.
The prosecutor also defended Mr. Rowland's decision to not raid the Carolina Club until agents could complete their work.
"That was why the club was not raided - we were conducting an undercover operation," Mr. Moore said.
"The allegations the Aiken County Sheriff's Office allowed the club to operate for other reasons has no merit."
Sheriff Hunt said he was only doing his duty.
"It was simply the right and honest thing to do," he said. "I'm satisfied with the plea agreement."
An Associated Press report was used in this article.
Reach Jim Nesbitt at (706) 828-3904 or email@example.com.
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