GULFPORT -- Before he pleaded guilty this week to bribing public officials, Robert Simmons was known in political circles as the man who could get government agencies access to U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, as well as state and other elected leaders.
State spending records show at least two Harrison County agencies had contracts with The Simmons Network, Simmons' consulting company. The Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport and the Harrison County Sheriff's Department each paid Simmons $1,500 a month for consulting services, county spending records and a copy of the airport contract show. Representatives for both agencies said part of Simmons' appeal was his relationship with Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, and its chairman from 2006 to 2010.
Thompson's office said the congressman has known Simmons for 30 years, but provided no further details on their relationship in response to Sun Herald questions.
The office also said any of Thompson's District 2 constituents can arrange meetings with him by going through his scheduler.
The Simmons Network worked for the Airport Authority from 2009 until Simmons resigned Monday by email. Three days later, Simmons admitted in federal court he'd paid thousands in bribes, from 2005 to August 2014, to state corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and Harrison County Supervisor William Martin. Epps resigned and pleaded guilty in another bribery case, and Martin committed suicide a year ago rather than answer bribery charges.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Golden said Simmons told federal authorities he knew what he did was wrong, but felt it was "the cost of doing business in Mississippi." After the plea hearing, Simmons would not answer questions about his consulting work.
Simmons has been working in Mississippi's tight-knit political community since at least 1978, first as an intern and, after he secured a master's degree, as head of community development for the cities of Biloxi and Hattiesburg. He founded The Simmons Network in 1993, consulting for government agencies and businesses.
Simmons began consulting for the airport on homeland security matters, airport Executive Director Clay Williams said.
"He was essentially brought in to open doors with certain contacts he had that the airport didn't have at the time," Williams said. "Robert has worked with various community organizations here locally. He's got a network of contacts in the Legislature that he has worked with and, in addition to that, he initially worked with the airport on issues that fell under the Homeland Security Committee and TSA He worked with Congressman Thompson's office."
In quarterly reports Simmons sent the airport in 2015, he talks about the "strong relationships" he maintains with elected leaders, state legislative meetings he has arranged or attended, and sponsorship of the Congressional Black Caucus conference Thompson was going to host in Tunica, among other things. Williams said Simmons was not a lobbyist, although his contract mentioned lobbying.
Instead, Williams said, Simmons "serves more just on a consulting basis: information gathering, reporting and, as I mentioned before, he's helped facilitate meetings,"
Simmons worked for the Harrison County Sheriff's Office from April 2010 through March 2012, county records show. Melvin Brisolara, who was sheriff at the time but lost his bid for re-election, said he hired Simmons because he was trying to arrange a meeting with Thompson about $1.5 million in funding for a records and jail-management system. Brisolara said he could not get Thompson's office to return phone calls, but he heard Simmons might be able to set up a meeting with the senator. Instead, Simmons was only able to arrange a meeting in Tunica, with Thompson staffers.
"I thought it was worth it to try to get (Simmons) to do it," Brisolara said, "but it never panned out."