By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - A former South Carolina county sheriff pleaded guilty on Tuesday to conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants in a deal that federal prosecutors said could land him in prison after a judge rejected a similar deal that had called for only probation.
James Metts, 68, was the state's longest-serving sheriff, having worked for Lexington County from 1972 until this year. He was suspended from office in June after being indicted on 10 criminal counts and resigned earlier this month.
Prosecutors charged Metts with taking bribes to prevent the deportation of illegal immigrants employed at a Mexican restaurant owned by one of his friends.
He also was 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.
In exchange for his guilty plea in court in the state capital of Columbia, prosecutors agreed to drop nine additional charges against him.
U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten, who accepted the plea deal with prosecutors that includes no sentencing conditions, had rejected an earlier plea agreement that would have resulted in three years of probation and no prison time.
"Prior to June he was Sheriff James Metts, the 42-year veteran sheriff of Lexington County. When we finish, he will leave this courthouse Jimmy Metts, the felon, and the citizens of Lexington County can move forward," Columbia-based U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said in a statement.
The conspiracy charge carries up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, with sentencing guidelines calling for 10 to 16 months in prison.
No date has yet been set for Metts' sentencing, prosecutors said.
(Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky, Barbara Goldberg and Will Dunham)