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Mississippi DOC scandal: What's behind the curtain?

Charlie Mitchell
Charlie Mitchell

In May 2010, Chris Epps was at the pinnacle.

There he was, a black man from tiny Tchula in the Mississippi Delta who had just been elected president of the largest and oldest organization of its kind, the American Correctional Association.

In 28 years, Epps had advanced from work as a Parchman guard to CEO of a system of public and private prisons with a budget topping $400 million per year. The press liked him. Governors, Republican and Democrat, had appointed and reappointed him.

And there he was, preparing to accept the gavel of an organization created for the purpose of accrediting and improving prison operations from coast to coast.

Fast-forward to 2014.

On Nov. 5, Epps delivered a brief and immediate retirement letter to Gov. Phil Bryant. No reason was given.

The next day, federal prosecutors unsealed a 40-count indictment alleging an ongoing pattern of bilking the public of millions of dollars through a variety of contracts. Bribery. Conspiracy. Money laundering. Failure to pay taxes on ill-gotten gains. (Yes, the IRS taxes stolen money, too.)

The federal investigation had been under way for many months. It is not known whether there were any negotiations or conversations between the Epps and the U.S. Attorney's Office before the indictment was unsealed. There could have been.

Regardless, this is where the case went public. The humiliation phase followed, with the standard perp walks, the standard lawyer statements. Then the doors closed and a high-stakes game of "Let's Make A Deal" either started or resumed.

Not long after the indictments, Epps and former state legislator Cecil McCrory, who was indicted at the same time a year and a half ago, both stood in open court, admitted they were guilty of some of the indictments. They were told to go home to await sentencing.

Since then, two sentencing dates for Epps have come and gone. The most recent was to have been earlier this month. But once again the judge's decision was delayed. Epps' next appointment with U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate is July 18.

Based on the charges to which he admitted guilt -- a fraction of the total in the indictment -- Epps, under federal formulas, could be sent to prison for 23 years and fined $750,000. (He has already forfeited $2 million in cash, two homes and two Mercedes vehicles.)

The discrete negotiations between Epps and prosecutors has most likely centered on reducing the amount of time, if any, he will be imprisoned. What does the former commissioner know that can be traded for a reduction from "the max?" How much of a reduction? Will prosecutors take the current deal for what's in the pocket, in the box?

There's nothing sinister about this. It's how webs are unspun. Granted, it might sound strange to an inmate serving 20 years for stealing $40 from a convenience store one night that a guy who beat the public out of millions over a period of years remains free. But Epps apparently has information prosecutors want. Or has them believing he does. Reckon anybody who did any business with the Department of Corrections is as nervous as a yard bird on Sunday morning these days?

And then there's this: It has been widely known and well-publicized for years that inmates in Mississippi and their families have been plucked for cash like the aforesaid chickens. Exorbitant prices for phone calls and personal items. Countless families complained to countless legislators about this. No investigation. A bevy on no-bid and single-source contracts. Nothing.

No one was watching the watchers of the watchmen.

As much as Mississippi likes to complain about the "feds," the feds have plugged one hole where it seems sweetheart deals and payoffs were, in a word, routine.

Where was the state auditor? Where were members of the corrections committees in the Legislature? Fair questions.

There's another aspect of the delay. In its initial report, the U.S. Attorney's Office said the crimes involved contracts totaling a net value of about $329 million. A revised figure reported last week is said to exceed $800 million. The amount is legally significant because the scope of illegal enterprises is a factor in determining the sentence. A $500 million swing is no small thing.

As of today, Epps, McCrory and two others have been charged. Assistant U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca said officials of 15 or more additional companies will be summoned in June and that grand jurors hearings are still in session.

Will you keep what you have, or trade it for what's behind the curtain?

Charlie Mitchell, former editor of the Vicksburg Post, is assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677. Email: cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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