JACKSON — Former Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps, who resigned abruptly this week, has been charged with accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from a Rankin County businessman connected to several private prison companies.
Epps is accused of receiving more than $700,000 from 2008 to 2014.
The 49-count federal indictment, unsealed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Jackson, also charges Cecil McCrory of Brandon with paying Epps to obtain contracts for himself and other companies.
In a brief appearance before U.S. Magistrate Keith Ball, both men pleaded not guilty. Each was released on $25,000 unsecured bond. Ball scheduled their trial for Jan. 5.
Epps is charged on 35 felony counts including conspiracy, bribery, money laundering and honest services wire fraud. McCrory is charged on 15 felony counts including conspiracy, bribery, money laundering conspiracy and honest services wire fraud.
The indictment says McCrory was paid by companies that received contracts from the Corrections Department to run private prisons, including Cornell Group, GEO Group and current contractor, Management and Training Corp. The companies were named in the indictment but not charged.
It’s unclear if other people or entities are being investigated. A motion to seal the indictment when it was filed in August said revealing its existence would hamper the investigation into Epps, McCrory and “others associated with these schemes and crimes.”
If convicted on all counts, Epps faces up to 388 years in prison, and McCrory 210 years. Fines could reach at least $11.3 million for Epps and at least $7 million for McCrory. Epps did not respond to phone messages Wednesday and Thursday seeking comment.
U.S. Attorney Greg Davis has recused himself from the case, said his spokeswoman, Sheila Wilbanks. It wasn’t immediately clear why.
Mississippi is being sued over conditions at two of its four private prisons: Walnut Grove Correctional Facility and East Mississippi Correctional Facility. The lawsuits claim the state isn’t doing enough to prevent inmate-on-inmate violence or to provide medical care.
Epps resigned Wednesday. McCrory, who served two terms in the state House from 1988 to 1996, was a member of the Rankin County school board until he resigned Tuesday.
The indictment charges Epps used the money from McCrory to pay mortgages on a house in Flowood and a condominium in Biloxi, later using more bribe money to upgrade to a nicer condominium in nearby Pass Christian. Federal authorities filed to seize Epps’ house in March
The earliest allegation of wrongdoing was made public in a 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 commissary services to the prison system. But the legislative watchdog report did not uncover the more than $350,000 in bribes that McCrory is alleged to have paid Epps in 2008 and 2009 after the commissioner approved that contract and then approved McCrory’s plan to sell the contract to a unit of St. Louis-based Centric Group.
The indictment states that Epps used the money to pay off the 3,800 square-foot house that Epps and his wife Catherlean bought in a gated Flowood subdivision in 2005.
The indictment charges that in 2009, after McCrory had provided more than $350,000 to pay off the mortgage on Epps’ Flowood house, Epps told him that “McCrory could get anything he wanted in the future from MDOC through Epps.”
The indictment later recounts a 2012 conversation in which Epps told McCrory that he had persuaded MTC to hire McCrory as a consultant, with McCrory and Epps splitting the money after taxes.
“I got us $12,000 per month,” the indictment quotes Epps as saying.
The indictment says Epps kept the cash in safe at his house and would try to make deposits of less than $10,000 to avoid banks taking notice.
Federal authorities are now trying to seize the house, the condo, two cars and multiple bank accounts.
The Department of Corrections has been conducting another round of bidding on the $60 million-a-year contract to run Mississippi’s three private prisons, which house more than 4,000 inmates. The department had said it would award the contract in October, but no award has been made. Department Spokeswoman Grace Fisher didn’t immediately respond to questions about the contract status, or whether the department would seek new bids.
Spokesman Issa Arnita said Utah-based MTC hadn’t provided any witnesses or evidence in the investigation. He couldn’t immediately provide any details Thursday on the company’s relationship with McCrory, but said talks continue with Mississippi on the contract.
“We’re in final negotiations with MDOC,” he said.
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