Another defendant named in the Thomas Ravenel cocaine investigation abruptly pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in Charleston to a single count of marijuana possession.
French national Pascal Etcheber's plea came just weeks before he was to stand trial here on six charges, including lying to the FBI and to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials about his knowledge of drug activities around Charleston.
U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson sentenced Etcheber to three years of probation and a $1,000 fine.
In return for that plea --and for his abiding by the law during the next three years -- the other charges will be set aside.
"I'm very sorry for my role in this," Etcheber said just before his sentencing. "All I want now is to be reunited with my daughter, return to work and restore my reputation."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore said the upcoming trial was going to be "hotly contested and difficult," but the plea agreement puts an end to that and gives Etcheber a similar level of punishment he would have faced had he been convicted at trial.
"We felt it was fair and appropriate, given our resources and other issues," he said, adding that Etcheber already has served six months in jail in Lexington and Charleston counties.
Etcheber's plea was sped up to avoid any complications with his visa, and he plans to return to France to rebuild his professional life. But he eventually hopes to return to the United States at some later date to visit his daughter. Pleading to the marijuana charge, unlike some of the other charges, won't automatically block his re-entry, Moore said.
Etcheber also had been accused of trying to influence or prevent a witness from testifying. Two of the other charges had covered what prosecutors described as knowingly "operating a stash house" where cocaine was kept and used.
He could have faced up to a $100,000 fine, but his lawyer, John Barton, said Etcheber went about $100,000 in debt fighting the charges and also owes $7,000 in child support. "You could say some of it is his own fault, but it is what it is," Barton said.
Etcheber, who was described as a successful business consultant and author, was involved in Ravenel's social circle. He also was considered a close friend of Pasquale Pellicoro, another target in the investigation who fled after his August 2007 indictment. "Mr. Pellicoro is still a fugitive," Moore said. "We hope to catch him at some point."
Ravenel resigned as state treasurer just six months after he took office. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy with intent to distribute cocaine and was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison -- a sentence he has served.
A third man, deejay Michael L. Miller, who went by the street slang name "Hashmere" and was believed to be Ravenel's cocaine supplier, also served 10 months.
Moore declined to discuss if any others would be charged in the investigation. "You just need to stay tuned," he said.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.