JACKSON Miss. (Reuters) - Mississippi’s former prisons chief pleaded not guilty on Thursday to federal charges that he accepted cash and mortgage payments in exchange for awarding prison contracts to companies tied to a local businessman.
Christopher Epps, who resigned as commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections on Wednesday, was indicted by a grand jury in August on charges that he and a co-defendant were involved in a kickback scheme that started in 2007 and continued for seven years.
Both Epps, 53, and co-defendant Cecil McCrory, 62, pleaded not guilty to all charges against them laid out in the 49-count indictment, unsealed on Thursday. Both men were freed on $25,000 bond and a trial date was tentatively set for January.
“What happened today is a major blow to the systemic and invasive corruption in our state government,” said Harold Brittain, acting U.S. attorney in Jackson, addressing reporters outside the courthouse.
Both defendants are charged with bribery, money laundering and wire fraud, with Epps also accused of filing false tax returns and of making multiple, small bank deposits to avoid federal scrutiny.
According to the indictment, McCrory paid off the mortgage on Epps’ home, totaling more than $350,000, made monthly payments of cash to Epps that the latter stored in a safe in his home, and made mortgage payments on Epps’ condominium.
In exchange, Epps steered contracts to companies owned by McCrory and others for which the businessman served as a consultant, the indictment said.
In one case, the two split a $12,000 monthly consulting fee McCrory received from a company to which Epps had awarded a contract, the indictment said.
Epps, who had served as commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections since 2002, was a national figure in prison administration circles, serving as president of both the American Correctional Association and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
His name had been removed from both groups’ websites as of Wednesday evening. Prosecutors have also moved to seize Epps’ home, a condominium and two Mercedes-Benz sedans.
McCrory, a former judge who had served as president of the Rankin County School Board, resigned that post on Wednesday.
Epps and his attorney, John Colette, declined to comment to reporters. McCrory and his attorney were not immediately available for comment.
Writing by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Andrew Hay and Eric Walsh