South Carolina's agriculture commissioner was arrested Thursday on charges of taking at least $20,000 in payoffs to protect a cockfighting ring (search) from the law.

Charles Sharpe (search), 65, was indicted on federal charges including extortion and money laundering. He was accused of accepting the money from an organization involved in breeding and raising birds for cockfighting. Cockfighting is illegal in South Carolina.

Sharpe pleaded innocent and was freed on $100,000 bail.

Gov. Mark Sanford (search) immediately suspended Sharpe, as required under the South Carolina Constitution, and will search for an interim commissioner to appoint. If convicted, Sharpe, who was elected in 2002, would automatically lose his office. The two extortion charges alone carry up to 20 years in prison each.

"Mr. Sharpe maintains his innocence," said his attorney John Felder. "He certainly denies the charges."

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

U.S. Attorney J. Strom Thurmond Jr. (search) said Sharpe escorted a law enforcement officer to the South Carolina Gamefowl Management Association's cockfighting arena and falsely told the officer that the fighting there was legal because it was done only to test the bloodline and hardiness of the birds. The officer was working undercover for the FBI and recorded the conversation.

The arena was shut down last November and more than 100 people were charged with participating in a cockfight, an offense punishable by a $100 fine or 30 days in jail.

The indictment also said Sharpe tried to convince a candidate for Aiken County sheriff that the bird operation was legal. The candidate, Michael Hunt, who was elected last year, also worked undercover for federal investigators.

Sharpe "was alleging that he had an opinion from the South Carolina attorney general's office," Thurmond said.

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 members of ring to the investigation. Stokes was fired in February. He pleaded innocent Thursday.

Sharpe, a Republican, served in the state House from 1985 until 2002 and was chairman of the Agriculture Committee. In his job as ag commissioner, he is responsible for developing and maintaining agriculture markets for the state.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, called cockfighting barbaric.

"In exchange for thousands of dollars, he has allegedly used his connections and his stature not only to enrich himself, but also to provide protection for an organized criminal network of cockfighters," Pacelle said.