By MBJ Staff
Sam Waggoner, 61, a Carthage businessman and corrections consultant, pleaded guilty Friday afternoon to charges of paying bribes and kickbacks to former Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher B. Epps in exchange for receiving contracts involving the MDOC and its operations.
Waggoner’s made his plea before U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate. He agreed to forfeit $200,000 in cash and faces up to 10 years in prison on the charge, according to the Associated Press..
Co-defendant and former state senator Irb Benjamin, a Madison resident and lobbyist for the state’s prison and payday loan industries, pleaded not guilty to similar charges. Benjamin faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000.00 fine for a conspiracy count, and a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000.00 fine for each of the bribery counts. Benjamin also faces the forfeiture of any ill-gotten gains, authorities said.
Waggoner admitted to paying bribes and kickbacks to Epps from sometime in 2012 until at least Aug. 26, 2014, federal authorities say.
Authorities say Waggoner was a consultant for Global Tel-Link (GTL), which provided telephone services at MDOC facilities. The indictment cited two specific instances in 2014 in which Waggoner paid Epps kickbacks from money Waggoner received from GTL as a consultant.
The charges against Benjamin and Waggoner were detailed in an announcement Friday morning by Acting U.S. Attorney Harold Brittain, FBI Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Donald Alway, IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Jerome McDuffie, U.S. Postal Inspector Robert Wemyss, and Mississippi State Auditor Stacey Pickering.
Authorities charged Benjamin, 69, in a three-count federal grand jury indictment with conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud and with two counts of bribery. According to the indictment returned against Benjamin, from some time in 2010 until September 2014, Benjamin gave Epps bribes and kickbacks in exchange for Epps awarding or directing the awarding of MDOC contracts or work to Benjamin’s company, Mississippi Correctional Management (MCM), to provide alcohol and drug treatment services to inmates at MDOC work centers in Alcorn and Simpson Counties. MCM was paid about $774,000.00 as a result of those contracts.
Epps and former state Rep. Cecil McCrory of Rankin County pleaded guilty earlier this summer to a bribery scheme that allegedly provided Epps with luxury vehicles, an upscale home in a gated community outside Jackson and a beachside condominium on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Epps and McCroy are awaiting sentencing to what authorities expect will be lengthy prison terms.
The indictment alleges that Benjamin paid Epps for Epps’ help in getting MCM consulting contracts with Alcorn, Washington and Chickasaw counties. Those contracts involved Benjamin providing consulting services during the construction and the subsequent operation of three regional corrections facilities. Benjamin purportedly provided consulting services to assist the regional corrections facilities in obtaining and maintaining accreditation by the American Correctional Association. The contract with Alcorn County paid MCM about $399,260.00; the contract with Washington County paid MCM about $245,080.00; and, the contract with Chickasaw County paid MCM about $217,900.00.
The indictment also alleges that Benjamin paid Epps monthly kickbacks from the consultant fees Benjamin received from Carter Gobal Lee Facility Management (CGL), after CGL obtained a contract in 2014 to provide maintenance services to MDOC facilities. Epps used his influence over CGL to get Benjamin the job as a consultant for CGL. The value of the CGL contract was $4,800,000.
Benjamin turned his prison lobbyist work into a full time job as warden of the privately run Alcorn County jail in northeast Mississippi while living 200 miles away in Madison. The board of supervisors forced him out after a pair of escapes. Benjamin, who at the time was an executive with prison operation form MCM Inc., held the jail warden job from January 2014 through the following November.
Benjamin had already been working as a consultant for the Alcorn County jail when the facility was built and when it opened in 2011.
Benjamin also worked as a prison consultant in other parts of the state. In 2008, DeSoto County supervisors hired him and MCM for a $3,000-a month consulting contract. Benjamin said at the time that he had been in the prison business for 15 years.
He served as state senator for Alcorn and Tishomingo counties in the 1980s and early 1990s.
As a lobbyist, he played a role in persuading state legislators in 2013 to remove a repeal provision from the state’s 2012 Check Cashers Act. The repealer would have required eventual renewal by the Legislature of the 2012 Act which, among other things, increased the amount of money payday lenders could loan at one time to $500, including fees.
The law specified a 30-day repayment period for loans above $250. However, lobbyists persuaded lawmakers to allow payday lenders to skirt that provision and require a 14-day repayment for loans and fees up to $500. They accomplished this by allowing payday lenders to make simultaneous loans of $100 each up to the $500 limit.
KC Grist, executive director of Financial Services Center of Mississippi, called the defeat of the repealer “an exciting victory for our industry.”
He said thanks should go out “to all those who work so hard for us on the ground at the Capitol, especially our association lobbyist Irb Benjamin.”
Meanwhile, federal authorities pledged to hold Benjamin and Waggoner accountable in their dealings with Epps. “Abuse of power and position by public officials” has plagued Mississippi for many years, said Harold Brittain, acting U.S. Attorney.
“We will hold accountable under the law everyone who bears the responsibility of public service and sells the trust that has been bestowed upon them,” he said.