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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Federal prosecutors allege that former Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps accepted more than $1 million in bribes over more than six years, steering hundreds of millions in contracts to firms that paid a Brandon businessman who in turn kicked back cash to Epps.
Epps and the man accused of being his partner in the alleged bribery scheme, former state lawmaker Cecil McCrory, pleaded not guilty Thursday in a 20-minute hearing in U.S. District Court in Jackson. U.S. Magistrate Keith Ball set a Jan. 5 trial date and released each on $25,000 unsecured bond. Both men declined to comment to reporters.
Hours after that hearing, Gov. Phil Bryant ordered the Corrections Department to rebid contracts with all companies mentioned in the indictment, though none of the businesses or their employees was charged. It was unclear whether other people or entities were being investigated.
Spokesman Knox Graham said Thursday that Bryant instructed interim Corrections Commissioner Richard McCarty to stop negotiations with Utah-based Management and Training Corp. over renewing a $60-million-a-year contract to manage prisons holding more than 4,000 inmates and seek new proposals.
Graham said Bryant wouldn't have reappointed Epps in 2012 if he had been aware of alleged misconduct. The FBI has been investigating Epps since 2010.
The 49-count indictment, sealed since August, charges Epps, 53, with 35 felony counts and McCrory, 62, with 15 felony counts. Each faces charges including conspiracy, bribery and money laundering. If convicted on all counts, Epps faces up to 368 years in prison, and McCrory up to 210 years. Fines could reach $10 million for Epps and $4 million for McCrory.
The indictment says McCrory was paid by companies that received private prison contracts from the Corrections Department, including Cornell Group, GEO Group and MTC.
The charges recount a 2012 conversation in which Epps allegedly told McCrory that he persuaded MTC to hire McCrory, with McCrory and Epps splitting the money after taxes.
"I got us $12,000 per month," the indictment quotes Epps as saying.
Spokesman Issa Arnita said earlier Thursday that MTC was in the final stages of negotiating a new contract. Arnita confirmed that MTC hired McCrory, saying it hires consultants in every state where it operates.
"At no time was MTC aware of any alleged inappropriate relationships between Mr. Epps and Mr. McCrory or that Mr. Epps was allegedly a participant in any way in the contract," Arnita wrote in an email.
Already Thursday, the state canceled two smaller contracts with a firm called Adminpros.
Epps resigned Wednesday. McCrory, who served two terms in the state House from 1988 to 1996 and was previously a justice court judge, resigned Tuesday from the Rankin County school board.
The indictment says Epps used $350,000 from McCrory to pay mortgages on a 3,800-square-foot house in a gated subdivision and on a condominium in Biloxi, then later used more bribe money to upgrade to a nicer condominium nearby. Federal authorities filed to seize Epps' house and condo in March. They've already seized two Mercedes Benz cars and bank accounts containing nearly $1 million.
The indictment charges that in 2009, after McCrory paid off his house, Epps said that "McCrory could get anything he wanted in the future from MDOC through Epps."
Leake County Sheriff Greg Waggoner said he called the FBI in 2010 to report concerns. McCrory's companies operated men's and women's transition centers in the county. Meant to help exiting inmates readjust to society, the Walnut Grove centers aroused concerns about criminal activity.
The earliest allegation of wrongdoing was made public in a 2011 report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review. It said McCrory's company, G.T. Enterprises, won a no-bid contract in 2007 to provide inmate commissary services. The legislative watchdog report did not allege bribes.
The indictment says Epps kept the cash in a safe at his house and illegally "structured" deposits of less than $10,000 to avoid notice by the banks.
McCrory gave Bryant a $1,000 campaign contribution in 2011 and $300 in 2009. Graham said Bryant will donate an equivalent amount of money to the Salvation Army.
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