Chris Epps sentenced to almost 20 years

The man who had been the gatekeeper for overseeing the incarceration of thousands and thousands of inmates in his 12 years as corrections commissioner will now become a prison inmate.

His fall from grace began in November 2014 when a 49-count federal indictment accused Epps of taking at least $1.4 million in bribes and kickbacks to steer more than $800 million worth of state prison contracts.

Epps pleaded guilty in February 2015 to bribery and filing a false income tax return. He faced a maximum 23 years in prison.

“This is not a simple crime,” Wingate said in sentencing Epps. “This is the largest graft operation in the state of Mississippi, definitely the largest I have seen. Mr. Epps betrayed the state of Mississippi.”

When given an opportunity to make a statement to Wingate prior to the judge announcing what his sentence would be, Epps said he has had plenty of time to reflect on why he was where he was today.

His answer: “It comes back to greed. I made some stupid mistakes I will regret for the rest of my life,”

Epps said he asks the state and others to forgive him.

“I hope this won’t overshadow the 27 years of good things I have done,” Epps said. “I can’t say enough how sorry I am. I have tried to make it right by working tirelessly with the government.”

Wingate said the gross value of the contracts Epps received kickbacks on was $868 million.

Wingate said of Epps: “It’s staggering, his criminal conduct.”

“He was able to have expensive homes and a vacation home; he was able to afford luxury cars and have fat bank accounts,” Wingate said of Epps’ illegal activity. “Mississippi is still in shock. It was an act of betrayal. He has bruised the image of Mississippi and given joy to many of the inmates he’s overseen who can now say the head of the state prison system was just as corrupt as any of them.”

Epps was first appointed commissioner by Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and reappointed by Republican Govs. Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant.

Wingate alluded to Epps’ popularity as corrections commissioner, pointing to the fact Epps served under several governors in a position that normally changes hands with each new governor.

Several people, including Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, and Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Sampson Jackson, D-Preston; wrote letters to Wingate asking for leniency for Epps.

Wingate said the tone of the character letters asked for no prison time for Epps, but he said he didn’t believe the letter writers understood the scope of Epps’ criminal activity.

In his decision not to accept the prosecution’s 13-year sentence recommendation, Wingate said to do so would ignore the burglary Epps committed while out on bond..

Epps’ bond was revoked in November after Flowood police arrested him for allegedly removing lights and a control panel from the more than $300,000 home he forfeited to the federal government in the bribery case. Epps had been out on bond awaiting sentencing in the corruption case when the crime occurred.

Epps has been cooperating with the government since a June 24, 2014, meeting with the FBI, about five months before the 49-count indictment against him and Rankin County businessman Cecil McCrory was unsealed and made public.

FBI Special Agent Ty Breedlove testified in court Wednesday that Epps was one of the best sources he has ever had, giving him a grade of 10 out of 10 for cooperation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca told Wingate prosecutors were making the recommendation of 13 years because of the substantial cooperation Epps has given in the case.

Wingate said he had to consider the positive as well as the negative in sentencing Epps.

He said the prison system is like a miniature city and that the state has to provide for all the inmates, leading to the various contracts Epps was able to influence.

Epps’ attorney John Colette had asked Wingate to consider reducing his client’s sentence to less than the 13 years prosecutors recommended because of cooperation Epps has given the government.

That cooperation led to charges against others.

In addition to Epps and McCrory, others charged are former state Sen. Irb Benjamin of Madison; Teresa Malone, the wife of former lawmaker and former House Corrections Chairman Bennett Malone; Texas businessman Mark Longoria; Dr. Carl Reddix; business and government consultant Robert Simmons; former MDOC insurance broker Guy E. “Butch” Evans; and prison consultant Sam Waggoner.

Evans and Malone are the only two who haven’t pleaded guilty.

Colette and prosecutors said Epps’ cooperation could lead to charges against six or seven others, including some out of state.

More: Mississippi prison bribery probe reaches into Alabama

It hasn’t been determined yet where Epps will serve his sentence.

Epps has complained about being kept in solitary confinement for his safety in a Mason, Tennessee, corrections facility while jailed for violating terms of his bond. He was moved to the Madison County Detention last week to await sentencing.

EPPS TIMELINE

2002 — Chris Epps is appointed Mississippi Department of Corrections commissioner.

Nov. 2, 2007 — Epps signs a no-bid MDOC contract with G.T. Enterprises, a company owned by co-defendant Cecil McCrory.

2007 — Epps solicits money from McCrory in exchange for the contract with G.T. Enterprises.

2007 — Epps receives from McCrory cash payments of $3,000 to $4,000 on some 15 occasions for the contract.

March 2008 — Epps approves the assignment held by McCrory’s company, G.T. Enterprises, to Keefe Commissary LLC, resulting in a large profit for McCrory.

2008 — Epps solicits McCrory to pay off Epps’ home mortgage.

July 25, 2008 — McCrory purchases a cashier’s check in the amount of $100,000 from his personal bank account at Community Bank, payable to Countrywide Bank, which holds the mortgage on Epps’ Flowood home.

Oct. 2, 2008 — McCrory purchases a second cashier’s check in the amount of $100,000 from his personal bank account of $100,000 at Community Bank, payable to Countrywide Bank for Epps’ Flowood home mortgage.

Oct. 24, 2008 — Epps signs a lease between MDOC and College Street Leasing, a company owned by McCrory.

Dec. 9, 2008 — Epps signs a lease between MDOC and McCrory’s company, College Street Leasing, for the use of land and facilities upon which to operate a new inmate transition facility for males in Walnut Grove.

Jan. 5, 2009 — McCrory purchases a third cashier’s check from his personal bank account in the amount of $50,000 payable to Countrywide to apply to Epps’ Flowood home mortgage.

April 2, 2009 — Epps and McCrory sign a lease between MDOC and College Street Leasing for the use of land and faciilties to operate an inmate transition facility for females in Walnut Grove.

July 16, 2009 — Epps and McCrory sign a contract awarded by MDOC to McCrory’s company, American Transition Services, to operate and manage the men’s facility at the Walnut Grove Transition Center.

July 28, 2009 — McCrory purchases a fourth cashier’s check in the amount of $101,309.81 payable to Bank of America Home Loan Servicing, which has succeeded Countrywide Bank, to pay off Epps’ home loan.

July 2009 — After Epps’ home has been completely paid off by McCrory, Epps tells McCrory he can get anything he wants in the future from MDOC through him.

July 2009 — Epps deposits $9,000 cash each in four different banking accounts.

Aug. 15, 2009 — Epps and McCrory sign a contract awarded by MDOC to McCrory’s company to operate the women’s facility at Walnut Grove Transition Center.

July 29, 2010 — Epps signs a contract awarded by MDOC to Adminpros LLC, a company that paid McCrory.

2010 — Leake County Sheriff Greg Waggoner said he went to the FBI after receiving complaints.

Jan. 24, 2011 — Epps signs MDOC contract awarded to Adminpros.

July 29, 2011 — Epps signs MDOC contract awarded to Adminpros.

Fall 2011 — State auditor’s office receives a complaint and launches an investigation, leading to collaborative investigation with federal and state authorities and the Leake County Sheriff’s Department.

July 2012 — Epps signs MDOC contract awarded to Adminpros.

August 2012 — Epps signs a contract awarded by MDOC to Management and Training Corp., a company that Epps persuaded to hire McCrory as a consultant.

Aug. 21, 2012 — McCrory wires $34,000 from his business account at Merchant & Farmers Bank directly to Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, which holds the loan for Epps’ condominium in Biloxi.

Sept. 14, 2012 — Epps signs a contract awarded by MDOC to Management & Training Corp.

Sept. 25, 2012 — McCrory wires $14,000 from his business account at Merchant & Farmers Bank directly to Wells Fargo Home Mortgage to pay down Epps’ condominium loan in Biloxi.

Oct. 18, 2012 — Epps signs a no-bid contract to Management & Training Corp.

Feb. 14, 2013 — McCrory wires $40,000 from his business account to Epps’ Edward Jones investment account, labeling it as a wire transaction for a consignment sale of farm equipment.

July 15, 2013 — Epps signs a no-bid contract to Management & Training Corp.

July 17, 2013 — Epps writes a letter to the State Personnel Board requesting “sole source procurement” for Adminpros, resulting in the company being awarded a no-bid contract.

Sept. 4, 2013 — McCrory wires $50,000 from his business account to Epps’ Edward Jones investment account.

Oct. 8, 2013 — Epps writes a letter to the State Personnel Board stating Adminpros was the only vendor that performs Medicaid eligibility services for inmates, resulting in a no-bid contract.

Aug. 5, 2014 — Sealed 49-count indictment is filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson against Epps and McCrory.

Nov. 5, 2014 — Epps resigns as MDOC commissioner.

Nov. 6, 2014 — Indictment against Epps and McCrory is unsealed.

Feb. 2015 — Epps pleads guilty to a bribery count and a tax count.

Nov. 1, 2016— Epps is charged with burglary of an uninhabited dwelling by Flowood police after he allegedly removes outside lights and a panel that controlled them from his old home that had been forfeited to the government as part of his guilty plea.

Nov. 4, 2016 — Epps’ bond is revoked. He is placed in jail until sentencing.

Feb. 3, 2017 — McCrory is sentenced to 8.5 years in prison.

May 24, 2017— Epps is sentenced to 19.7 years in prison.

Source: Clarionledger