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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — One man pleaded guilty Friday and another was indicted on federal charges that they paid bribes and kickbacks to a former Mississippi corrections commissioner in exchange for contracts.
Sam Waggoner, 61, of Carthage, agreed Friday to plead guilty to one count of bribery after waiving indictment before a federal judge. Waggoner told U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate that he felt compelled to pay more than $100,000 in bribes to the former commissioner, Christopher Epps, or risk Epps ruining his business.
Former state Sen. Irb Benjamin, 68, of Madison, pleaded not guilty to three counts of conspiracy and bribery after his indictment was unsealed Friday. He was released on $10,000 bond and U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Ball scheduled an Oct. 6 trial for Benjamin.
The two are the latest people charged in a bribery scandal centering on Epps. Epps and former state Rep. Cecil McCrory pleaded guilty months ago and await sentencing.
State Auditor Stacey Pickering said Friday he expects charges to be brought against other people later.
When he pleaded guilty, McCrory told Wingate that Epps pushed him into making a $200,000 bribe, the first in a series McCrory said topped $1.5 million to Epps.
Waggoner was paid 5 percent of monthly revenue by prison phone company Global Tel-Link to act as a consultant starting in 2011, he testified after waiving indictment. He said Epps demanded that Waggoner kick back half the fee to him, and Waggoner agreed after Epps said Waggoner could take money out for taxes.
"It was his idea, sir," Waggoner told Wingate.
Waggoner and said he feared Epps would pressure sheriffs to drop his other business — a local jail phone provider CCI Communication — if he refused the bribes.
"I'd seen what he'd done to other people who'd said 'No,'" Waggoner testified.
So once a month, Waggoner said, he would meet Epps for lunch or at his house and give him a stack of cash. Over three years, Waggoner, a cousin of a late transportation commissioner, said the bribes paid Epps totaled more than $108,000.
Prosecutors said they had recordings of Epps and Waggoner discussing ways to pump up Global Tel-Link's revenue by adding a video-conferencing service for inmates. Based on Waggoner's figures, Global Tel-Link, still the inmate phone provider at state prisons, collected $2 million in yearly revenue at the time.
"These allegations against Mr. Waggoner are very serious and we have only just learned about them," Global Tel-Link spokesman Kirk Vespestad wrote in an email Friday. He said the company hadn't been contacted but would "fully cooperate" if needed.
Wingate set a Nov. 5 sentencing date for Waggoner, who was released on $10,000 bail. He faces up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines, and has also agreed to forfeit $200,000.
If convicted, Benjamin faces up to 40 years in prison and up to $750,000 in fines.
The charges say Benjamin gave Epps bribes and kickbacks in exchange for the state selecting his company, Mississippi Correctional Management, to provide drug and alcohol treatment services to inmates at state work centers in Alcorn and Simpson counties. The company collected about $774,000, according to court documents.
The indictment also claims that Benjamin paid Epps in exchange for Epps' helping the company get consulting contracts worth $862,000 overall from three counties: Alcorn, Washington and Chickasaw.
All three counties built regional jails, which had to be certified by the American Correctional Association before being paid to house state inmates. Benjamin was supposed to help those counties get and keep that certification.
Though Benjamin lived 200 miles away, he was paid as warden of the jail in his native Alcorn County until he resigned in November. He lived there while a state senator from 1980 to 1992, later moving to suburban Jackson.
Benjamin is alleged by authorities to have paid monthly kickbacks to Epps out of consulting fees from Carter Goble Lee, which was hired in 2014 to help maintain prisons. Messages left Friday for Carter Goble Lee were not immediately answered.
Corrections spokeswoman Grace Simmons Fisher said the company continues providing services under a $19 million contract running until 2018. She said the department would rebid the Global Tel-Link and Carter Goble Lee contracts.
The indictment alleges that Benjamin made regular cash payments of $1,000 to $2,000 to Epps beginning in 2010, in exchange for Epps' influence. It states that for three months in 2014, Benjamin was getting $2,000 a month from Carter Goble Lee and passing on $600 to Epps. By that time, Epps was already aware of the investigation.
Epps faces up to 23 years in prison and fines of $750,000. He has agreed to forfeit $2 million in assets.
McCrory faces up to 20 years and fines of $500,000. He has agreed to forfeit $1.7 million in assets.
This story has been corrected to show that Benjamin's age is 68, not 69, and that Waggoner is a cousin of a former transportation commissioner, not a nephew.
Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report.
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