Simmons expected to plead guilty in Epps bribery case

Robert E. Simmons, June 2011
Robert E. Simmons, June 2011

GULFPORT -- Coast business consultant Robert Simmons intends to plead guilty to a federal bribery charge in the public corruption case that brought down state corrections Commissioner Chris Epps, Simmons' attorney said Tuesday afternoon.

Attorney K.C. Hightower cautioned, however, "People can change their minds."

Simmons, 60, will have his initial appearance at 4 p.m. Thursday in U.S. District Court, followed by his plea hearing at 4:30 p.m. before U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden.

Ten years is the maximum sentence for bribery. Hightower would not discuss whether Simmons has cooperated with the government's years-long investigation of Epps.

"What he has done or not done will become pretty apparent between any plea date and a sentencing date," Hightower said.

Simmons is accused of bribing Epps and former Harrison County Supervisor William Martin, who committed suicide hours before he was supposed to answer bribery charges in the federal case almost a year ago.

Simmons served as a consultant to companies that did business with the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Federal prosecutors allege Simmons collected hefty consulting fees from the companies, then paid kickbacks to Epps and Martin in exchange for their influence in securing prison or jail contracts for the companies.

Simmons has been a familiar face in government board meetings as part of his consulting work. Simmons, who has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Mississippi, served for most of the 1980s as Biloxi's community development director, then held a similar position in Hattiesburg. Simmons also worked as economic development director for the city of Pass Christian from 1993-1994.

He founded his consulting firm, The Simmons Network, in 1993.

Since 2009, Simmons has been on monthly retainer as a consultant on transportation issues for the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.