Lexington sheriff indicted for bribery, improper use of inmate labor

cleblanc@thestate.comJune 17, 2014 

Lexington County Sheriff James Metts at the Chapin Labor Day parade and celebration in September 2012.

FILE PHOTOGRAPH/THE STATE

— A federal grand jury on Tuesday indicted longtime Lexington County Sheriff James Metts on charges of accepting bribes and abuse of his position as sheriff.

Gov. Nikki Haley quickly suspended Mettsfrom office late Tuesday afternoon and appointed a replacement, Lewis McCarty, to fill the position in her home county. McCarty retired years ago from the sheriff’s department as Metts’ second-in-command.

Metts is fighting the charges.

“Sheriff Metts has dedicated his life to law enforcement and serving the citizens of Lexington County,” his attorneys, Scott Schools and Sherri Lydon, said. “He denies the allegations and looks forward to his day in court.”

The 10-count federal indictment alleges Metts, 68, accepted bribes from friends in return for using his “position, power and influence as sheriff” to interfere with the proper identification and processing of some illegal immigrants detained at the county jail, according to federal prosecutors.

Three other people were charged by the State Grand Jury. They are former Lexington town councilman Danny Frazier, 46, ex-South Congaree police chief Jason Amodio, 45, and Greg Leon, the 47-year-old owner of some San Jose Mexican restaurants. Frazier and Leon are accused of bribing the sheriff.

Frazier, reached by phone shortly after the indictments were announced Tuesday, declined comment. He referred questions to his attorney, Jim Griffin of Columbia, who said, “Danny Frazier has been cooperating fully with law enforcement officials regarding their investigation and he looks forward to resolving these matters.”

Leon’s attorney, Dick Harpootlian, declined comment.

Lexington officials said the charges are a dark day for the county.

“It’s a shame,” said Steve MacDougall, mayor in the county seat. “He was someone I really looked up to. It’s also a sad day for Lexington County, that’s for sure.”

County clerk of court Beth Carrigg said, “It’s certainly a sad set of circumstances not only for the longest-serving sheriff in the state of South Carolina but also for the community as a whole.” Carrigg’s office has worked with Metts during her nearly 10 years as clerk of the county’s state court system.

Jeff Moore, longtime director of the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association, said he was saddened at the news.

“Jimmy has done a lot of good, for Lexington County and for the state,” Moore said.

Thirty-two years ago, Moore said, it was Metts who of all the 46 S.C. sheriffs, had a vision that the sheriffs’ association – at that time, just a collection of lawmen who met for lunch a few times a year –could be a progressive force for law enforcement.

Metts faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the most severe federal charge, wire fraud.

Other federal charges against Metts are conspiracy to harbor people who were in the country illegally, conspiracy to violate federal law and interfering with government functions. Those offenses carry penalties ranging from five to 10 years plus fines of up to $250,000.

“Public corruption at any level will not be tolerated,” U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said in announcing the indictment.

Interim sheriff McCarty said in a statement issued by the sheriff’s office, “My No. 1 priority is maintaining integrity and public confidence in this department.”

The 28-page indictment accuses Metts of accepting money to help four illegal immigrants who worked for Leon and were arrested by the West Columbia Police Department get out of the county jail, where police had taken them.

In one instance, Metts accepted an envelope of cash from Leon at the sheriff’s headquarters for freeing an immigrant employed by Leon who had been arrested on Nov. 13, 2011, according to federal prosecutors.

“It was the purpose of the conspiracy for defendant Metts to enrich himself by using and agreeing to use his official position, power and influence in exchange for cash,” the indictment states.

The federal indictment against the suspended sheriff does not specify how much money it alleges Metts accepted.

Metts also is accused of enriching others “by corruptly and knowingly using (his) position, power and influence to obtain special treatment” for Leon’s arrested employees.

Leon is accused of giving bribes to officers, a state law felony that carries up to five years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $3,000.

In two of the three other specific instances laid out in the indictment, Frazier is alleged to have handed the sheriff the payoffs.

Arrangements to keep the illegal immigrants from being reported to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency were planned during cellphone conversations, prosecutors say.

Each of the four arrests cited in the indictment – which occurred between Sept. 2, 2011, and Nov. 13, 2011 – were made by the West Columbia police department, where Metts got his start in law enforcement.

Frazier is charged under state law with an ethics violation of seeking to influence a public official. Frazier faces up to 10 years and a $10,000 fine.

Amodio is charged with common law misconduct in office, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The state indictment accuses him of accepting payment for seized illegal gaming machines. It does not connect him to Metts.

Efforts to reach Amodio were unsuccessful.

Metts, the longest-serving among South Carolina’s current sheriffs, held the post since December 1972. He had become a marquee name in South Carolina law enforcement circles and had been a political powerhouse in Lexington County for decades.

Metts would have to stay in office through 2016 to break the record set by one-time Pickens County sheriff C. David Stone. Stone was defeated in a June 2012 primary election, which ended his 44-year tenure.

On more than one occasion, Metts sought to become the chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, South Carolina’s leading police agency. SLED worked with the FBI and other federal investigators on the case that resulted in Tuesday’s charges.

Metts’ job as sheriff gives him control of the Lexington County jail, and he has an agreement with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, often called ICE, to house illegal immigrants. Anyone arrested in the Midlands for being in the country illegally is taken to the the county jail.

In August 2010, Metts signed the ICE agreement that allowed specialized officers at the jail to enforce federal immigration laws. Those who were found to be undocumented were reported to ICE for deportation.

Early in the program, advocates for immigrants in the Midlands said they had heard complaints about the new program but had not been able to verify any of the accusations that Metts’ deputies were targeting immigrants for minor arrests.

At the time the program started, Metts blamed the jail’s overcrowding, in part, on illegal immigrants. At any given time, 10 percent of the jail’s roughly 800 inmates were immigrants, he said then.

Under the agreement with ICE, two jail officers were trained to investigate whether immigrants were legally in the United States.

The Lexington County Detention Center is one of three jails in the state that has an agreement with the federal immigration agency. The others are in York and Charleston counties.

When he became Lexington’s sheriff at age 26, Metts was then the nation’s youngest sheriff. By 1979 he had earned a Ph.D. in education from the University of South Carolina, making him one of a few sheriffs in the nation to hold a doctoral degree.

But Metts’ long tenure has not been without controversy.

He was criticized at one point for becoming a for-hire law enforcement expert and being a consultant to insurance companies while serving as sheriff.

He has clashed frequently with Lexington County Council about his constant push for more money to expand the department.

In 2001, Metts took out an ad in the Batesburg-Leesville newspaper apologizing for his description of the town as dying, inhospitable and a place many residents left. His comments came during an unsuccessful bid to persuade town leaders to allow him to convert a home into a place for his catering business.

In 2003, Metts upset Batesburg-Leesville officials again during an exchange over cooperation between town police officers and his deputies. Town officials said Metts made an off-color remark and used a crude gesture during a private conversation, prompting some town leaders to threaten to withhold political support.

The suspended sheriff also has dealt with medical issues that occasionally sidelined him. In 1995, his doctors advised him to find a way to relieve job stress after he had heart pains. Metts built a goldfish pond at his home and began exercising. He has battled with his weight for years, but in recent years has slimmed down.

Perhaps Metts’ most notorious criminal case involved the 1985 kidnapping and murder of teenager Shari Smith and the investigation and manhunt for her killer, Larry Gene Bell.

In 1991, actor William Devane played Metts in a made-for-TV movie about the case.

The State writers Staff writers Tim Flach and John Monk as well as former staff writer Noelle Phillips contributed.

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