COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s longest-serving sheriff pleaded not guilty to federal bribery charges on Tuesday, accused of lining his pockets by doing favors for friends.
Lexington County Sheriff James Metts, 68, was released on $100,000 bond after a brief hearing in federal court in Columbia. A judge also ordered him to surrender his passport and guns and not to leave South Carolina without court permission.
Metts faces 10 charges, which include allegations of taking bribes, committing wire fraud and participating in a conspiracy. Prosecutors said Metts allowed friends to buy favors, accepting cash in return for agreeing to assist people who were in the country illegally and who were being detained.
Indictments detail phone calls between Metts and a former Lexington Town councilman, who prosecutors said acted as a go-between for the owner of several Mexican restaurants. Metts accepted an envelope of cash in exchange for keeping some of the restaurants’ employees from ending up in federal databases of immigrants who weren’t supposed to be in the U.S., the indictment said.
In searches of offices at the sheriff’s department, court documents show agents have seized computers, appointment books, written notes, incident reports, an iPhone and a cassette tape in a recorder attached to a telephone in Metts’ office.
Metts’ lawyer Sherri Lydon, who has previously said her client is not guilty, on Tuesday asked for a lower bond, citing Metts’ ties to the community.
“Sheriff Metts has lived in the Columbia area his entire life,” Lydon said. “This is a man who is very entrenched in this community. He is not going anywhere.”
Metts said nothing to a group of reporters after the hearing, and his next court date has not been scheduled. Also on Tuesday, Metts’ attorneys filed a request for some of the evidence against their client, including recordings of conversations with other people charged in the case.
Gov. Nikki Haley suspended Metts about an hour after the indictments were released and appointed Lewis McCarty, who retired in 1999 after nearly 30 years with the Lexington Department, as the acting sheriff.
Metts began his law enforcement career as a dispatcher with the West Columbia Police Department in 1967. In 1972, at the age of 25, he became the youngest sheriff ever elected in the nation, according to his online biography, and has served ever since in the heavily Republican county outside Columbia.
The University of South Carolina alum is also a graduate of the FBI National Academy, the National Sheriff’s Institute and the National Corrections Academy. He was named South Carolina’s sheriff of the year in 1982.
In 1998, Metts pondered a GOP primary challenge to then-Gov. David Beasley – whom he had helped get elected four years earlier – and even mulled running as an independent before ultimately supporting the incumbent.
Metts is the eighth South Carolina sheriff to be charged or investigated in about four years and at least the fourth accused of taking kickbacks.
It had been well over a decade since a sitting South Carolina sheriff had been indicted when Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin was charged with dozens of federal drug and racketeering charges in May 2010. Since then, four more sheriffs have faced state misdemeanor charges, three of them accused of misusing state inmate labor. Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth and Abbeville County Sheriff Charles Goodwin pleaded guilty, but avoided jail time.
Sheriff Sam Parker of Chesterfield County was found guilty earlier this year of giving away guns from his department without filing proper paperwork and allowing untrained people to act as deputies. Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson faces federal kickback charges, accused of creating fake police reports saying people had their identities stolen for a friend who ran a credit-repair business.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon was charged with third-degree assault and battery after admitting he slapped a handcuffed man in the face after the man had led his deputies on a 120-mph chase in January 2012. The misdemeanor charge was eligible for pre-trial intervention, and Cannon remains in office.
Officials in Orangeburg County sued the estate of the late Sheriff Larry Williams, saying he took more than $200,000 in public money and used it on personal expenses. Williams died before the case could be prosecuted.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP