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S.C. official accused of protecting cockfights

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina's agriculture commissioner was arrested yesterday on charges of taking at least $20,000 in payoffs to protect a cockfighting ring from the law.

Charles Sharpe, 65, was indicted on federal charges including extortion and money laundering. He was accused of accepting the money from the South Carolina Gamefowl Management Association, a group involved in breeding and raising birds for cockfighting. Cockfighting is illegal in the state.

Sharpe pleaded not guilty and was freed on $100,000 bail.

Governor Mark Sanford immediately suspended Sharpe, as required under the South Carolina Constitution. If convicted, Sharpe, a longtime state lawmaker who was elected to the agriculture post in 2002, would automatically lose his office. The two extortion charges alone carry up to 20 years in prison each.

Sharpe's attorney, John Felder, said his client denies the charges.

Sharpe was accused of taking the payoffs in 2002 and 2003, while he was a state lawmaker and then agriculture commissioner.

The indictment also said Sharpe tried to convince a candidate for Aiken County sheriff that the South Carolina Gamefowl Management Association's cockfighting arena was legal.

Sharpe was also accused of taking campaign contributions to help pass legislation that benefited the group.

A former State Law Enforcement Division agent, Keith Stokes, also was charged in the case, accused of lying when he denied trying to tip off ring members to the investigation. Stokes pleaded not guilty yesterday.

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