WAGENER, S.C. --- A former South Carolina agriculture commissioner who served two years in prison for taking a $10,000 bribe to help protect a cockfighting group from legal trouble said recently he has "never been a cockfighter."
Charles Sharpe told The Post and Courier of Charleston that he pleaded guilty because he didn't want to lose his 100-acre land in central South Carolina. He also said he didn't want his family to endure any more public ridicule.
"I could have lost everything I had," Mr. Sharpe, 69, told the newspaper for a story published Monday. "I know I didn't clear myself by doing that, but I did it for my family."
Mr. Sharpe was released from federal prison about a year ago.
He pleaded guilty in 2005 to extortion and lying to a federal officer. He admitted to taking the money from an organization prosecutors said was involved in breeding and raising birds for cockfighting.
"I've never been a cockfighter in my life. Cockfighting is absolutely wrong," Mr. Sharpe told the newspaper. "It is gory. I about got sick to my stomach when (authorities) started describing it."
Mr. Sharpe said he believed people from the South Carolina Gamefowl Management Association when they said they were running a "testing facility" that is legal under state law.
The group has argued cockfighting is a centuries-old sport practiced by their ancestors.
Mr. Sharpe's indictment led to calls for tougher penalties for cockfighting. The maximum fines for cockfighting have been increased, but some lawmakers want to make it a felony, bringing South Carolina in line with 35 other states.
Currently, cockfighting is a misdemeanor with no minimum fine or sentence, and possession of a bird is not a crime.
Mr. Sharpe said prosecutors offered him a lesser sentence if he agreed to help them.
"They wanted to do a sting at the Statehouse," Mr. Sharpe told the newspaper. "They wanted me to help the federal government, and I wouldn't do that. They were furious when I pled guilty."
Mr. Sharpe said he believed his arrest was payback for a 2004 trip he made to Cuba with a state trade delegation. Mr. Sharpe and other state officials had a private dinner with then-president Fidel Castro.