LEXINGTON, S.C. — A federal grand jury indicted the state's longest-serving sheriff Tuesday on charges of taking bribes.
Lexington County Sheriff James Metts, 68, faces a 10-count indictment, accused of taking bribes from friends to interfere with the proper identification and processing of certain undocumented immigrants at Lexington County Jail, according to U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles.
"Public corruption at any level will not be tolerated," Nettles said in a statement. "These indictments are a product of a new team at the United States Attorney's Office whose goal is to use an unprecedented level of cooperation with state and federal agencies in routing out public corruption and returning public trust to the people."
Two men — Danny Frazier, 46, and Greg Leon, 47 — are accused of giving Metts the bribes, and a state grand jury has indicted both of them. Frazier is a former Lexington town councilman who resigned earlier this year, and Leon owns a group of Mexican restaurants.
In the 28-page indictment, prosecutors contend illegal activity began around September 2011: Metts would be informed if an undocumented immigrant working for Leon was arrested and detained. Metts would then contact his command staff and other employees to give Leon's employees preferential treatment, making it difficult for federal immigration officials to process and identify them.
The indictment gives several examples of the three men calling each other after a Leon employee was arrested. The employee would then be released, and Metts would get cash for his help, according to investigators.
Beginning in 2012, Frazier worked as a business liasion for the sheriff's department. He later gave up that post.
Tuesday afternoon, Metts said he was surprised by the indictment and referred further questions to his lawyer, Sherri Lydon.
"Sheriff Metts has dedicated his life to law enforcement and serving the citizens of Lexington County." Lydon said in a statement. "He denies the allegations and looks forward to his day in court."
Metts is charged with conspiracy to violate federal law, use of interstate facility to facilitate bribery, use of interstate wire to defraud and conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens.
When Metts became sheriff in 1972 at age 25, he was the youngest sheriff ever elected in the country. During his career, he has received a number of awards, including the Order of the Palmetto and the Order of the Silver Crescent and was named South Carolina's sheriff of the year in 1982.
Metts began his law enforcement career as a dispatcher with the West Columbia Police Department in 1967. In 1998, he 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.
The sheriff's ties to video gambling date to that campaign, during which he advocated a statewide referendum on the issue and received contributions from video gambling interests. Metts said he would return the contributions after disbanding his campaign, and state lawmakers ultimately banned video gambling in 2000.
The Republican is up for re-election in 2016.
Metts is the eighth South Carolina sheriff to face criminal charges or investigation in the past four years and at least the fourth accused of taking kickbacks:
• Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin was charged with dozens of federal drug and racketeering charges in May 2010.
• Four other sheriffs have faced state misdemeanor charges, three accused of misusing state inmate labor. Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth and Abbeville County Sheriff Charles Goodwin pleaded guilty but avoided jail time.
• Chesterfield County Sheriff Sam Parker 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 he remains in office.
In Orangeburg County, officials sued the estate of Sheriff Larry Williams after his death by county officials, accusing him of taking more than $200,000 in public money and using it on personal expenses. Williams had died before his case could be prosecuted.
Contributing: The Associated Press