COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A federal judge Wednesday rejected a plea deal that would have kept former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts out of prison on a charge that he hindered the possible deportation of workers at a friend's restaurant who were in the country illegally.
U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten said he couldn't accept a deal for the felony that didn't send Metts to prison because federal sentencing guidelines call for 10 months to 16 months behind bars for someone who pleads guilty to the charge of conspiracy to harbor certain aliens.
The deal signed by Metts and prosecutors earlier this month and offered to the sheriff before he was indicted in June called for three years of probation. Prosecutors said it was fair because Metts only stepped in for two people charged with traffic offenses who had no criminal record. Metts' attorneys said while they think the government's case is weak, Metts was willing to take the plea deal to get the case behind him.
The deal allowed Metts to withdraw his guilty plea if the agreement was rejected. The judge told both sides to be ready for a trial next month on the 10 counts Metts was indicted for in June.
Neither prosecutors nor Metts' lawyers talked to reporters after the hearing.
In 2011, prosecutors said Metts agreed to help out Mexican restaurant owner Greg Leon, who asked four times if his employees arrested in Lexington County could be pulled out of jail before they were entered into a federal database and were found to be in the country illegally. Twice, Leon's requests were too late. Two other times, Metts was able to get the workers before a magistrate before federal agents checked on them.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson said prosecutors still think Metts got an envelope of cash for his work, but said Metts' attorneys vehemently disagree. Even with that dispute over the motive, Richardson said investigators and prosecutors agreed Metts shouldn't be imprisoned, but should be held responsible with a felony that would keep him from owning guns and force him to leave the office of sheriff he held for 42 years.
"Mr. Metts tarnished the badge in a way that is not only harmful to his own reputation, but harmful to all those who wear the badge," Richardson said.
Metts' lawyer pointed out that the government's chief witnesses were involved in crimes themselves and prosecutors didn't have Metts on tape. Sherri Lydon said Metts had an exemplary record of service in nearly five decades in law enforcement and was especially bothered by claims he was part of a wider scheme.
"It hasn't been a big enough fall for some," Lydon said. "But I assure, your honor, the sheriff feels the gravity of that fall to leave a job he's loved all his life as a convicted felon."
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