By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - A U.S. judge rejected a plea deal on Wednesday that would have allowed South Carolina's former longest-serving sheriff to serve three years of probation in exchange for admitting he was guilty of conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants.
James Metts, 68, served as sheriff of Lexington County from 1972 until being suspended from office last summer after he was indicted on 10 criminal counts.
Prosecutors charged him with accepting bribes to use his position to prevent the deportation of illegal immigrants who were employed at a Mexican restaurant owned by a friend of his.
Metts also conspired with employees of the sheriff's office to release illegal immigrants from jail before U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could identify or process them, according to court documents.
Metts had agreed to plead guilty to a single charge in exchange for three years of probation and prosecutors dropping the other counts, court records showed. The conspiracy charge carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney DeWayne Pearson and an attorney for Metts confirmed that a federal judge in Columbia, South Carolina, refused to accept the plea offer on Wednesday, but neither lawyer would characterize the judge's reasons.
Television station WLTX reported that the judge said the charges against Metts did not meet the qualifications for a sentence offer of only probation.
"It is now a pending matter," Pearson told Reuters by phone. "We do not comment on pending matters."
Defense attorney Scott Schools said Metts' not guilty plea still stands. The trial for the former sheriff, who resigned from office on Tuesday in a letter to the governor, is set for January.
"We're going to prepare for trial," Schools said.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Eric Walsh)