Crime

Bribes 'cost of doing business in Mississippi,' says consultant who pleaded guilty

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD 
 Business consultant Robert Simmons, right, and his attorney, K.C. Hightower, walk to the Dan M. Russell, Jr., federal courthouse in Gulfport on Thursday Feb. 18 for his initial appearance 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.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD Business consultant Robert Simmons, right, and his attorney, K.C. Hightower, walk to the Dan M. Russell, Jr., federal courthouse in Gulfport on Thursday Feb. 18 for his initial appearance 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. SUN HERALD

GULFPORT -- Coast business and government consultant Robert Simmons pleaded guilty to bribery in federal court Thursday, saying he paid thousands in kickbacks to the state corrections commissioner and a Harrison County supervisor because he considered it "the cost of doing business in Mississippi."

In exchange, Simmons' clients received contracts worth millions, evidence showed.

Simmons, 60, entered his guilty plea to the bribery charge before U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden. He is scheduled to be sentenced at 9 a.m. May 26 in U.S. District Court in Gulfport.

Simmons admitted that between 2005 and August 2014, he bribed former state Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and a Harrison County supervisor who went un

named during the one-hour plea hearing. Epps has pleaded guilty in a separate bribery case.

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."

"Mr. Simmons said that he knew it was wrong to deposit the money into Mr. Epps' account, but believed it was 'the cost of doing business in Mississippi'," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Golden told the judge.

Simmons paid at the county level, too. William Martin, who served for 16 years as a Harrison County supervisor, committed suicide one year ago, at age 58, rather than face bribery charges in the case. Martin had previously served for years as an assistant district attorney for Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties, prosecuting murders and other crimes.

Golden said prosecutors plan to recommend Simmons be sent to prison for 2.5 years, out of a potential maximum of 10 years, because he cooperated with investigators. However, Ozerden does not have to follow the recommendation.

Golden said California-based Sentinel Offender Services LLC, which Simmons represented, was competing with another company in July 2012 to provide probation and parole services for the Mississippi Department of Corrections. The other company was represented by Brandon businessman Cecil McCrory, who also has pleaded guilty to bribing Epps.

Epps and McCrory met before the contract was awarded, Golden told the judge. "Mr. Epps told Mr. McCrory that McCrory had made enough money and Epps felt obligated to award the contract to Sentinel," Golden said.

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.

If Simmons had gone to trial, Golden said, prosecutors were prepared to present evidence against him that included testimony from FBI agents Tye Breedlove and Molly Blythe, video and audio recordings and wiretaps.

After he was confronted with the evidence against him, Golden said, Simmons signed a plea agreement in December.

After the hearing, Simmons' attorney, K.C. Hightower of Gulfport, said, "Mr. Simmons has accepted responsibility for what he did, and he's looking forward to getting on with his life."

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