Restaurant owner admits hiring people in county illegally in scheme that brought down sheriff

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A restaurant owner became the latest person to plead guilty in an immigration scheme that brought down South Carolina's longest-serving sheriff.

Gregorio Leon of Lexington pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court to engaging in a pattern and practice of hiring illegal aliens, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles. Earlier this year, Leon agreed to plead guilty and to pay a fine of $180,000. The rest of his federal sentence will be determined later.

Federal prosecutors have said that Leon, 49, was involved in hiring about 60 people who were in the country illegally for his eight restaurants in the greater Columbia area. Leon has admitted that he had an arrangement with then-Lexington County Sheriff James Metts, whom he paid several times for helping out when one of those employees got arrested for minor crimes.

In April, Metts was sentenced to a year and a day in prison after pleading guilty to keeping Leon's workers out of the immigration system. Metts had been Lexington County's top lawman for more than four decades when he was indicted in 2014.

Leon has already pleaded guilty to state charges of paying a public official for assistance. He has been sentenced to probation and community service, along with two other men involved in the scheme.

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