2 more charged with bribing Epps for state prison contracts

AP News
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Posted: Aug 21, 2015 1:18 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Federal prosecutors announced Friday that two more men have been charged with paying bribes and kickbacks to a former Mississippi corrections commissioner in exchange for contracts.

Prosecutors said they have charged Irb Benjamin, a former state senator, and Sam Waggoner, the nephew of a late state transportation commissioner.

Benjamin and Waggoner are accused of passing cash to former Commissioner Christopher Epps, the longtime chief of the state prison system. In return, Epps steered contracts to them.

Benjamin and Waggoner are scheduled to appear in federal court Friday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Ball. It wasn't immediately clear if either man has a lawyer.

State auditor Stacey Pickering says both men have been cooperating with prosecutors.

"I would expect all individuals to cooperate as they have been to this point," he told The Associated Press, saying he also expected further charges in the case.

Epps and businessman Cecil McCrory, a former state legislator, were indicted in 2014 in the same case and pleaded guilty in February. Each has agreed to give up more than $1 million in assets as part of their sentences.

Prosecutors said Benjamin, 69, who now lives in Madison, was indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud and two counts of bribery. The indictment alleges Benjamin benefited from the scheme in two different ways. First, prosecutors say he gave Epps bribes and kickbacks in exchange for the state selecting his company, Mississippi Correctional Management, to provide drug and alcohol treatment services to inmates at state work centers in Alcorn and Simpson counties. The company collected about $774,000 for those services.

Secondly, the indictment alleges that Benjamin paid Epps in exchange for Epps' helping the company get consulting contracts with Alcorn, Washington and Chickasaw counties. All three of those counties built regional jails, which had to be certified by the American Correctional Association before being paid to house state inmates.

Benjamin was supposed to help those counties get and keep that certification. His company collected $862,000 from the three counties. Though Benjamin lived 200 miles away, he was paid to be warden of the jail in his native Alcorn County until he resigned in November.

Benjamin is also alleged to have paid monthly kickbacks to Epps out of consultant fees he received from Carter Goble Lee, which was hired in 2014 to provide maintenance services to the state prison system.

The indictment alleges that Benjamin made regular cash payments of $1,000 to $2,000 to Epps beginning in 2010, in exchange for Epps' influence. It states that for three months in 2014, Benjamin was getting $2,000 a month from Carter Goble Lee and passing on $600 to Epps. By that time, Epps was already in talks with federal prosecutors about pleading guilty.

Sam Waggoner, 61, of Carthage, faces a criminal charge that says he bribed Epps while working as a consultant for prison phone company Global Tel-Link. Being charged without indictment, as Waggoner has been, often indicates that a defendant has already agreed to plead guilty.

The charge says Waggoner was getting 5 percent of Global Tel-Link's revenue from its Mississippi contract and paid Epps a cash kickback out of his monthly commission in July and August 2014.

Waggoner faces up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. Benjamin faces up to 40 years in prison and up to $750,000 in fines. Prosecutors said they want to make Benjamin and Waggoner forfeit gains from the crimes, an avenue they're pursuing against Epps and McCrory.

Prosecutors want Waggoner to forfeit $200,000, while they didn't list an amount for Benjamin.

Epps faces up to 23 years in prison and fines of $750,000. He's agreed to forfeit $2 million in assets.

McCrory faces up to 20 years and fines of $500,000. He's agreed to forfeit $1.7 million in assets.

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