JACKSON — A businessman says a former Mississippi prison official solicited the first in a series of bribes that eventually mounted to $1.5 million.
Former Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and businessman Cecil McCrory pleaded guilty Wednesday — Epps to two felony counts and McCrory to one.
McCrory says Epps initially pushed him to pay $200,000 on his mortgage on a home in a gated subdivision. That kicked off years of bribes that helped Epps acquire a beachfront condo, and a pair of top-of-the-line Mercedes Benz cars.
“Mr. Epps talked me into making that first mortgage payment on his house,” McCrory said as he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering. “It took awhile to talk me into it, but I did, and it just went on from there. It was something I never thought I would do.”
Epps eventually steered $2 million in contracts to McCrory, and helped him collect $3 million more in fees on hundreds of millions in contracts awarded to companies employing McCrory.
“I’m sorry for what I’ve done. It was wrong,” Epps said as he changed his plea to guilty on federal charges of money laundering conspiracy and income tax evasion.
Both had pleaded not guilty when an indictment was initially unsealed in November charging Epps with 35 felony counts and McCrory with 15 felony counts.
Epps faces up to 23 years in federal prison and fines of $750,000 when U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate sentences him June 9. Epps also could be ordered to make restitution. McCrory faces up to 20 years in prison and fines of $500,000 at sentencing June 10.
Prosecutors say Epps reaped $1.5 million in gains from the bribery scheme, which ran until 2014. As part of his plea agreement, Epps has agreed to forfeit nearly $2 million in real estate, bank accounts, cars, plus $69,600 in cash that the FBI agents found when they searched his Flowood home. Defense lawyer John Colette said Epps’ wife will try to retain some of the property on the grounds that her earnings helped pay for it.
McCrory has agreed to forfeit $1.2 million in cash, about $500,000 in real estate, and an SUV.
Both men remain free on bond pending sentencing.
Prosecutor Mike Hurst said the value of what’s being seized exceeds the amount of bribes Epps took, but the government is allowed to seize it all because the bribes were comingled with legitimate earnings.
Hurst told Wingate on Wednesday that the government was prepared to present witnesses who would testify that Epps had ordered them to award Corrections Department contracts to McCrory or companies he represented, sometimes without bids. McCrory lobbied for a range of companies doing business with the state prison system, including Utah-based Management and Training Corp., a private firm that runs four prisons for Mississippi.
Hurst said witnesses also were prepared to testify that bribes were paid and that they saw Epps depositing cash in banks. He said the witnesses would be backed up by financial records and wiretaps.
Epps worked for 32 years at the Department of Corrections and was its longest-serving commissioner, with a dozen years in the position. He is a double rarity — an employee who started at the lowest rung and worked his way to the top, and an agency director who was chosen by and served under three governors: one Democrat and two Republicans, including current Gov. Phil Bryant.
After Epps pleaded guilty Wednesday, Bryant said in a news release that he appreciates prosecutors pursuing the case.
“I hope it serves as an example that there are consequences for public corruption,” Bryant said.
McCrory served in the state House from 1988 to 1994 and has been a Rankin County justice court judge. He resigned Nov. 4 as president of the Rankin County School Board.
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