COLUMBIA - South Carolina's longest-serving sheriff is set to go to trial early next year on bribery and conspiracy charges.
During a hearing in Columbia on Wednesday, Chief U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten ruled that suspended Lexington County Sheriff James Metts' trial will begin on Jan. 20. Attorneys said they expect the trial to last about two weeks, and a jury will be picked the week before it begins.
The judge also set an Oct. 15 hearing to deal with pretrial issues and motions.
Metts and three other men have been accused as part of a federal corruption scheme. Authorities have said Metts took bribes from restaurant owner Greg Leon in exchange for releasing some his employees who had been detained for being in the country illegally.
According to prosecutors, former Lexington Town Councilman Danny Frazier participated in that scheme and also bribed former South Congaree Police Chief Jason Amodio in exchange for seized gambling machines.
All four men have pleaded not guilty. Indictments in Metts' case detail phone calls between the sheriff and Frazier, who prosecutors say acted as a go-between for Leon, 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.
Attorneys on Wednesday discussed that evidence, which Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson said is still being examined and will ultimately be shared with defense attorneys. Both sides also agreed to a method for going through documents and a cellphone that Metts' attorneys have said may contain legally privileged material.
Richardson said there is also some possibility that another indictment may be handed down against Metts but gave no other details.
Metts is free on $100,000 bond. After the hearing, he told reporters the charges are without merit.
"I haven't done anything wrong," Metts said. "This trial is nothing more than an attempt to discredit me, and we are going to prove, through our attorneys, that we are innocent, as we've always been, and that justice, I believe, will prevail."
Metts has been suspended from the office he has held since 1972. He is the eighth sheriff in South Carolina to be charged or investigated in the last four years.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP