By TED CARTER
As part of his guilty pleas, former Mississippi prisons boss Chris Epps must pay a $750,000 fine and could be forced to pay a hefty restitution. But he has an income source to help with the costs: the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi.
Epps, a Delta native and former school teacher who started his state career as a prison guard, worked for the Department of Corrections for 34 years. He served as commissioner under Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and Republican governors Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant. Epps resigned in early November following his indictment on 40 counts of bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and tax charges. Epps admitted guilt Wednesday to two felony charges of money laundering and tax evasion. He and co-defendant Cecil McCrory, a Brandon businessman and former state legislator, had previously pleaded not guilty. McCroy followed Epps Wednesday with a plea of guilty to money laundering, according to the Associated Press.
Mississippi Auditor Stacy Pickering persuaded legislators to consider legislation, House Bill 31,that would bar public officials convicted of a felony from drawing retirement benefits. The legislation, introduced by Rep. Greg Haney of Gulfport, failed to gain traction in the House this session, however.
“Back in November, we were expecting the legislature to pass such a bill,” said Will Craft, spokesman for the Auditor’s Office. “Unfortunately, the bill that we were pushing for, House Bill 31, has since died. “
Participants in the state retirement plan pay a portion of their wages into the plan and receive an even larger contribution from the state.
Prosecutors say Epps reaped $1.5 million from a bribery scheme he engaged in with former legislator and Rankin County School Board president Cecil McCrory. As part of his plea deal, Epps will forfeit nearly $2 million in real estate, bank accounts, cars, plus $69,000 in cash that FBI agents found when they searched Epps house last fall, the Associated Press reports.
Epps, 52, faces up to 23 years in federal prison and fines of $750,000 when U.S,. District Judge Henry T. Wingate sentences him June 19. Epps could be forced to make restitutions as well, the AP reports.
Presumably, co-defendant McCrory will have some Mississippi public retirement money to draw during his expected prison term. McCrory served four years as a Rankin County Justice Court judge, four years as a Rankin County Sheriff’s investigator and as a member of the Mississippi House from 1988 to 1994. He served as a Rankin County School Board member from 2008 to 2014. School board members are not eligible for the state public employee retirement find.
McCrory, 63, faces up to 20 years in prison and $500,00 in fines when sentenced June 10, the AP reports.
Prosecutors say McCrory gave Epps hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes starting in 2007. In exchange, prosecutors say, Epps steered prison contracts to companies McCrory owned or for which McCrory was a consultant.
Epps and McCrory must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, according to Ed Ross, spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons. The reductions, which come to 54 days a year, depend on inmates meeting good conduct rules, he said.
Meeting obligations to pay fines and any restitution also would be considered in whether they receive the shortening of their sentences, Ross said. “They must be meeting all of their obligations.”
Inmates also undergo three to five years of federal supervision after their release, Ross noted.