By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - A former South Carolina sheriff agreed on Monday to plead guilty to conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants, a deal that could land him in prison after a federal judge rejected a similar agreement that would have resulted only in probation.
James Metts, 68, became sheriff of Lexington County in 1972 and had been the state's longest-serving sheriff. He was suspended from office in June after being indicted on 10 criminal counts and resigned last week.
The conspiracy charge carries up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
Prosecutors charged Metts with accepting bribes to use his position to prevent the deportation of illegal immigrants employed at a Mexican restaurant owned by one of his friends.
Metts was also accused of conspiring 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.
The new plea agreement includes no sentencing conditions. It must be approved by U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten in Columbia, South Carolina, who last week rejected a guilty plea to the same charge because the deal carried a guarantee of only three years' probation as a penalty.
Wooten has not yet scheduled a hearing to determine whether he will accept the revised plea deal, defense attorney Scott Schools said on Monday.
Failing a successful plea deal, Metts is due to stand trial in January.
(Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky and Mohammad Zargham)