Charlie Mitchell

Judge Wingate says Epps is no small-time offender

There’s no way to know what former Mississippi Commissioner of Corrections Christopher Epps expected when he walked into court — at last — to hear his sentence, but the nearly 20-year term imposed by U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate must have come as a surprise.

Prosecutors had recommended 13 years and Epps’ attorney was hoping for less. Letters to the judge from legislators asked for leniency, perhaps no prison time at all.

Yet Wingate stood his ground, voiced outrage.

“This is the largest graft operation in the state of Mississippi, definitely the largest I have seen,” the judge said. “Mr. Epps betrayed the state of Mississippi.”

Indeed.

And hooray for not treating this as yet another routine public corruption case.

According to a timeline based on indictments, Epps had been extorting state contractors for seven years before federal prosecutors stepped in and said enough is enough.

It all took place right under the noses of state officials, including those paid to manage the public’s money and provide oversight. Big-time or, as Wingate said, “staggering.”

During his rise to the top Epps became well-respected. He served under three governors — one Democrat and two Republicans — in an appointed post that normally changes with each administration. In a state that incarcerates a larger slice of its population than almost any other state, he was admired and was even elected to national leadership of a prison management group.

All the while, it was clear to almost anyone who wanted to do business with the Department of Corrections that there had to be a side deal with the prison boss. And the cost of the corruption was usually passed right through to the taxpayers or to prisoners and their families.

No one questioned the luxury cars, expensive jewelry and clothes, multiple homes, all on a rather modest state salary.

It begs the question: How confident can the public be in state officials who were apparently blind while kickbacks were a routine part of state contracts totaling $848 million? How could Epps pocket at least $1.4 million and no one seemed to notice or care?

At his sentencing, Epps, who pleaded guilty more than two years ago to bribery and filing a false income tax return, told Wingate that greed had consumed him. He said he was sorry, regretted what he had done.

The schemes came to an abrupt halt in November 2014 when Epps gave a letter to Gov. Phil Bryant announcing immediate retirement. The 49-count federal indictment was unsealed the next day.

The sequence that followed was, well, routine.

Before the indictment and since, Epps spent days, weeks and months in deal-making with federal prosecutors. The Clarion-Ledger newspaper said FBI Special Agent Ty Breedlove testified at the sentencing that Epps was one of the best in cooperating, scoring him a 10 out of 10 for providing information that led to indictments of his former “partners.” At least eight people, including other current and former state officials or their kin, were charged. Most, like Epps, admitted their guilt, or a degree of guilt. The case reportedly continues. A half-dozen or more others may be pretty nervous.

Wingate pointed out just how big the public-private prison industry is in Mississippi, comparing it to a city in terms of management. Actually, most medium-sized cities operate on budgets of about $30 million per year. The Department of Corrections spends well over $400 million.

It would be too cumbersome to add up, but the public cost of the graft in the Epps case may well eclipse the total cash stolen by all the people serving robbery sentences in Mississippi today.

Epps has “given joy to many of the inmates he’s overseen who can now say the head of the state prison system was just as corrupt as any of them,” Wingate said. It staggers the imagination, too, that Epps, during his tenure, walked 13 prisoners to the death chamber at Parchman to pay for their crimes. A scriptwriter might show Epps in the next scene walking to his car in the still, dark night, finding and fondling another envelope of payoff money.

Mississippi is a place where people, especially state officials, love to loathe and trash-talk the feds. There’s an aura that this state can manage itself and doesn’t need federal meddling in education, health care and such.

Well, federal prosecutors and Judge Wingate put the lie to that. Absent their intervention, Epps and Company might still be in business ripping millions from the treasury of a state that doesn’t have a dime to spare.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.

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