SOON TO BE SEIZED: This is the house owned by former Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps and one of his Mercedes Benz S-class automobiles.
By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog
Former State Corrections commissioner Chris Epps was living in the fast lane.
The longest-serving corrections commissioner in state history rose from a corrections officer at the Mississippi State Penitentery in Parchman to the top of the field. He was president of the American Correctional Association, the oldest and largest international correctional association in the world, and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
He and his wife, Catherlean, drove a pair of S-class Mercedes Benz sedans, the top of the marque’s range. The 2007 S65 AMG boasted a 600-plus horsepower, twin-turbocharged V-12 engine and cost $184,875 when new. The 2010 S550 cost $91,225 new.
The Epps family lived in a massive, gated community in a suburb of Jackson, in a spacious $359,000 house with more than 3,300 square feet of living space and four bedrooms.
The perfectly manicured Lineage Lakes subdivision in Flowood has two entrance gates flanked by stately columns, a massive clubhouse and swimming pool, plus a lake. They vacationed in their beachfront condominium in Pass Christian.
All that on a salary of more than $135,000 per year as the state’s longest-serving corrections commissioner?
Things came crashing down Thursday, when Epps, 53, was named in a 49-count federal indictment along with former Rankin County school board president Cecil McCrory on charges of wire fraud, conspiracy, bribery and money-laundering conspiracy. Epps is facing 35 of those counts plus six counts of tax evasion, accused of failing to report income from the bribes. A trial date is set Jan. 5.
The indictment accuses Epps of receiving kickbacks and bribes to steer corrections contracts worth nearly half a billion dollars in contracts, leases or work to companies owned by McCrory starting in 2007.
The government is seeking the forfeiture of all of those properties and nearly $1 million in cash held in various accounts controlled by Epps.
“The abuse of power and position by public officials has plagued our state for many years,” Harold Brittain, acting U.S. attorney in the case, said at a news conference. “Our tolerance for public corruption is zero.”
Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps requests an $8.2 million increase for prisons during the agency’s budget request for the state fiscal year 2016 at a hearing Sept. 30 before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in Jackson, Miss. The biggest portion of that increase, $5.8 million, would help pay for four privately run prisons.
The indictment was the culmination of a multi-year investigation by state and federal authorities revealing an alleged bribery scheme that cost the state thousands of dollars in prison services contracts.
Both entered not guilty pleas and were released on $25,000 bail.
According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, Gov. Phil Bryant has ordered the department to review all contracts, including those named in the indictment. The department has cancelled all contracts with Admin Pro, which paid McCrory, a former state legislator and justice court judge, as a consultant.
According to the indictment, McCrory paid Epps handsomely in wire transfers and checks for his help in securing lucrative contracts with the Department of Corrections, which spent $261,488,689.38 in fiscal 2014, according to SeetheSpending.org.
He sent bribes to Epps’ mortgage account for his Flowood home, and Epps used the equity to buy a condominium in Biloxi, which he later sold to buy one in nearby Pass Christian. McCrory also contributed to the second condo’s mortgage with a wire transfer of $200,000 in 2013.
Management and Training Corporation, which received $58 million from the state in 2014 to operate four prisons in Mississippi — East Mississippi, Marshall County, Walnut Grove and Wilkinson County — was lobbied by Epps to use McCrory as a consultant. According to the indictment, Epps told McCrory that “I got us $12,000 per month,” which they divided evenly after McCrory calculated the taxes he’d owe on the consulting income.
On July 30, 2009, according to the indictment, Epps went on a $36,000 bank deposit spree. He deposited $9,000 in cash at a Regions Bank branch and $9,000 more at a BankPlus branch in Flowood. Twenty minutes later, he made another $9,000 cash deposit at a Regions Bank in Jackson before finishing his banking day with a $9,000 deposit in his Mississippi Public Employees Credit Union account. He bought a $9,000 check at the PECU payable to an investment account.
He kept the deposit amounts below $10,000 to skirt reporting requirements for financial institutions, which must report to the IRS transactions above that amount.
Epps and McCrory resigned their respective positions this week, before the indictments were handed down.