South Carolina

Former Lexington County sheriff Metts sentenced to prison, supervised release, $10,000 fine

tdominick@thestate.com

Former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts is going to prison for several months after a federal judge brushed aside his plea for mercy Monday.

U.S. District Court Judge Terry Wooten sentenced the long-time lawman to a year and a day in prison along with a $10,000 fine, with supervised release for two years afterward.

The sentence means that Metts, 68, will serve approximately 10 months after pleading guilty to a federal offense stemming from interference in the handling of two illegal immigrants at the county jail in 2011.

When and where he goes to prison remains to be determined, with part of his sentence possibly served in a halfway house.

The outcome assures that Metts’ career as one of South Carolina’s state’s most prominent law enforcement officials ends in the same way as many of wrong-doers he help put away during 42 years as sheriff.

“Today’s resolution is a step towards restoring the shine to the badge that Mr. Metts tarnished,” U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said.

Metts said he is “highly disappointed” in being put in prison but promised “I’m going to serve my time and put it behind me.”

Wooten, a former prosecutor, told Metts that his actions were “a serious breach of trust.” in refusing to agree to home confinement as the former sheriff requested.

“I don’t want to go to prison,” Metts said, his voice shaking at times before sentencing. “I have severe medical problems. I don’t want to go to prison because I don’t think I will come out of there alive.”

Metts also promised to undertake community service with Christ Central Ministries.

“In the name of the Lord, your honor, I would like to do that,” said Metts, who then pointed to wife Carol and his daughters.

“The ones who are suffering most are my wife and children,” Metts said. “If you send me to prison, she is going to be by herself….I regret having made a mistake, but no man is perfect….Put yourself in my shoes, your honor, I am not a criminal.

Metts went on, “I am a broken man. I am definitely ashamed.”

Wooten focused on what he saw as Metts’ abuse of power.

The offense - technically called harboring illegal aliens - concerned a scheme whereby Metts allegedly too money and released two Mexican immigrants from jail as a favor for a friend, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors have not made public how much money Metts took. Nine other charges against Metts were dropped in return for his plea

Leniency is not merited, Wooten said. after listening to remarks from Metts and his lawyers, Scott Schools and Sherri Lydon.

The three urged mercy due to Mett’s age, numerous medical ailments, charitable works contributions to law enforcement.

“He’s not elderly - he’s not infirm,” Wooten said. “He is able to work with his (medical) condition. He may well have been working today if he hadn’t been indicted.”

Metts’ betrayal of public trust outweighs other considerations, the judge said.

“Mr. Metts was the law. He was sheriff. His conduct did not promote respect for the law,” Wooten said.

“Mr. Metts was sheriff and it was his job to enforce the law,” the judge continued. “In this case, he decided to violate the law.. he violated the public’s trust.”

Metts told the judge he has “no real explanation” for what he did.

“To be honest, I trusted people I never should have,” he added.

Wooten also said that although Metts does not qualify as elderly and federal prisons are equipped to handle any medical situation.

Wooten also said that a prison sentence for Metts will send a message to other public officials what they can expect for misconduct. “If you commit crimes, there are consequences.”

Federal prosecutor Jay Richardson called Metts’ offense “ limited in scope” and had agreed with defense pleas for no prison.

But Metts had taken part of a corrupt way of doing business, the prosecutor said.

“He chose to be part of a good ol’ boy system and help a friend in a way that was totally unacceptable,” Richardson said.

Richardson and fellow prosecutor Jim May declined to say whether investigations continue.

Metts apologized to his family, to his former deputies and “to the citizens of Lexington County who put their trust in me.”

Hes was the longest-serving sheriff in South Carolina – but not a record-setter – when he stepped down shortly before his December plea.

For many of the county’s 270,000 residents, he was the only top county lawman they had known.

“Today’s sentencing should bring closure to an unfortunate situation and continue the healing process,” said new Sheriff Jay Koon, elected last week.

Former County Auditor Lee Hendrix, a long-time friend of Metts, likewise said the outcome “starts bringing some closure.”

Although Metts is unhappy with being sent to prison, “it could have been worse,” she said.

Metts is the latest state sheriff to turn into trouble with the law in the past five years.

In September, a federal jury found suspended Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson and a Columbia businessman guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Prosecutors said Johnson created fake police reports so customers of the man’s credit-repair business could claim their overdue bills were caused by identity fraud. The two have not been sentenced. Each faces up to 20 years in prison.

In April, Sam Parker of Chesterfield County was found guilty and given two years in prison and three years’ probation for letting inmates have unsupervised visits with women and sleeping outside the jail with access to TV and alcohol. He was charged with four counts of misconduct in office and two counts of furnishing contraband to inmates.

In January 2013, Abbeville County Sheriff Charles Goodwin pleaded guilty to misconduct in office for receiving kickbacks from county funds paid to a local auto body shop and for using a state prison inmate to do work on his personal vehicles and property. He resigned from office, got probation, 100 hours of community service and had to pay $4,445 in restitution.

Then- sheriff Jason Booth pleaded guilty in 2012 to misconduct in office for misusing state prison inmates who were at his Saluda County jail. Evidence in the case said Booth used a convicted methamphetamine trafficker to dig a pond and construct a shed on Booth’s private property. In return, the inmate was allowed to leave the detention center, have conjugal visits with his girlfriend, have use of an SUV and attend parties on Booth’s property. He received a $1,000 fine and five years’ probation.

Sheriff Larry Williams in Orangeburg County died in 2010. In 2012, investigators revealed he had apparently stolen some $200,000 in county money, taking reimbursements from state and federal sources and spreading it around to 11 different bank accounts, according to a lawsuit Orangeburg County filed against his estate. The county last year received $35,000 each from the fiancee of Williams and the credit union where she worked, but the two did not admit they did anything wrong.

Former Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin was sent to prison in 2011 for taking bribes from alleged drug dealers. He was sentenced to 17 years after being convicted on 38 charges of drug conspiracy and racketeering.

In September 2010, former Union County Sheriff Howard Wells was sentenced to 90 days in prison for loaning money to an informant for exorbitant fees, not reporting the earnings and lying to federal agents. Wells became well known during the arrest and trial of Susan Smith, who is serving time for killing her two young boys 20 years ago.

Others in trouble

Some sheriffs have been in trouble in South Carolina since 2010:

In September, a federal jury found suspended Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson and a Columbia businessman guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Prosecutors said Johnson created fake police reports so customers of the man’s credit-repair business could claim their overdue bills were caused by identity fraud. The two have not been sentenced. Each faces up to 20 years in prison.

In April, Sam Parker of Chesterfield County was found guilty and given two years in prison and three years’ probation for letting inmates have unsupervised visits with women and sleeping outside the jail with access to TV and alcohol. He was charged with four counts of misconduct in office and two counts of furnishing contraband to inmates.

In January 2013, Abbeville County Sheriff Charles Goodwin pleaded guilty to misconduct in office for receiving kickbacks from county funds paid to a local auto body shop and for using a state prison inmate to do work on his personal vehicles and property. He resigned from office, got probation, 100 hours of community service and had to pay $4,445 in restitution.

Then- sheriff Jason Booth pleaded guilty in 2012 to misconduct in office for misusing state prison inmates who were at his Saluda County jail. Evidence in the case said Booth used a convicted methamphetamine trafficker to dig a pond and construct a shed on Booth’s private property. In return, the inmate was allowed to leave the detention center, have conjugal visits with his girlfriend, have use of an SUV and attend parties on Booth’s property. He received a $1,000 fine and five years’ probation.

Sheriff Larry Williams in Orangeburg County died in 2010. In 2012, investigators revealed he had apparently stolen some $200,000 in county money, taking reimbursements from state and federal sources and spreading it around to 11 different bank accounts, according to a lawsuit Orangeburg County filed against his estate. The county last year received $35,000 each from the fiancee of Williams and the credit union where she worked, but the two did not admit they did anything wrong.

Former Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin was sent to prison in 2011 for taking bribes from alleged drug dealers. He was sentenced to 17 years after being convicted on 38 charges of drug conspiracy and racketeering.

In September 2010, former Union County Sheriff Howard Wells was sentenced to 90 days in prison for loaning money to an informant for exorbitant fees, not reporting the earnings and lying to federal agents. Wells became well known during the arrest and trial of Susan Smith, who is serving time for killing her two young boys 20 years ago.

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