Crime

Prison sentence was the real price of consultant’s bribery conviction

Business consultant Robert Simmons, right, and his attorney, K.C. Hightower, walk to the Dan M. Russell, Jr., federal courthouse in Gulfport on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016, for his sentencing on a federal bribery charge in the public corruption case that involves former state corrections Commissioner Chris Epps and former Harrison County Supervisor William Martin.
Business consultant Robert Simmons, right, and his attorney, K.C. Hightower, walk to the Dan M. Russell, Jr., federal courthouse in Gulfport on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016, for his sentencing on a federal bribery charge in the public corruption case that involves former state corrections Commissioner Chris Epps and former Harrison County Supervisor William Martin. ttisbell@sunherald.com

Coast consultant Robert Simmons provided the government “substantial assistance at great risk” in the federal bribery investigation that netted former Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and others, Simmons attorney K.C. Hightower said Thursday before his client was sentenced to seven years and three months in prison.

Before the hearing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed under seal a record that detailed Simmons’ cooperation, a cryptic court discussion revealed. Simmons pleaded guilty in February to a bribery charge.

U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden gave Simmons the lowest sentence possible under federal guidelines, saying he considered Simmons’ cooperation and crime-free past. Simmons could have received up to nine years in prison.

Simmons also will pay a $10,000 fine and serve three years of supervised release once is prison time is finished.

The government determined several contractors earned a total of $6.7 million in profits from contracts Simmons helped them secure for state prison construction and Harrison County jail health services. In exchange for those contracts, Simmons funneled thousands in kickbacks to Epps and Harrison County Supervisor William Martin.

“These types of offenses are very serious,” Ozerden told Simmons. “They involve conduct that calls into question the integrity of our public institutions. The court must take that into consideration.”

Simmons, 61, said he was just a country boy from Amite County who had been working as a professional in South Mississippi for 35 years. He owns The Simmons Network consulting firm and had previously served as community development director for the city of Biloxi.

“The totality of what I have been engaged in over the years does not reflect what happened in the recent past,” Simmons said.

He apologized to his wife, who did not attend the hearing, his friends and the public.

Simmons bribed Epps from 2005 until August 2014, and Martin from 2005 through 2011, evidence showed.

At his earlier plea hearing, Simmons said he considered bribery “the cost of doing business in Mississippi.”

Epps has pleaded guilty in a separate case, but has not yet been sentenced.

Simmons told investigators he drove to various Coast bank branches to deposit bribe money into Epps’ account, then sent a text message that usually said, “Count it 14 done.”

Simmons paid at the county level, too.

Martin, who served for 16 years as a Harrison County supervisor, committed suicide in February 2015 rather than face bribery charges in the case.

That same month, in a federal courtroom in Jackson, Epps and former state lawmaker Cecil McCrory pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the bribery investigation. Both await sentencing.

Simmons represented California-based Sentinel Offender Services LLC, which was awarded a probation and parole services for the Mississippi Department of Corrections in 2012.

Evidence showed Sentinel paid Simmons a consulting fee of $4,000 a month from July 2012 through August 2014. Each month, Simmons deposited $1,400 into Epps’ bank account. The kickback to Epps was half the consulting fee after Simmons deducted 30 percent for taxes, Golden said.

Simmons received a consulting fee of $10,000 a month from AJA Management & Technical Services Inc. of Jackson for 18 months while the company managed expansions of the East Mississippi and Walnut Grove correction facilities. Simmons admitted he paid Epps an undisclosed portion of that fee each month.

Simmons also admitted bribing the county supervisor with $2,000 monthly payments from a consulting fee provided by Health Assurance LLC of Jackson. The company had a contract to provide medical services at the Harrison County jail. Health Assurance paid Simmons a total consulting fee that climbed to $10,000 a month while he represented the company from 2005 through 2011.

Simmons signed a plea agreement and began cooperating with investigators after he was confronted with the evidence against him, including video and audio recordings, and wiretaps.

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99

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