2 Former Mississippi Officials Plead Guilty in a Graft Case Involving Private Prisons

Christopher B. Epps, the former head of Mississippi’s prison system, in Jackson on Wednesday.

Christopher B. Epps, the former head of Mississippi’s prison system, in Jackson on Wednesday.

From New York Times

Two former Mississippi officials, including the head of the prison system, pleaded guilty to corruption charges on Wednesday amid a federal inquiry that rattled the state’s government and raised new questions about its use of private prisons.

The guilty pleas, entered in Federal District Court in Jackson, came nearly four months after the authorities announced a 49-count indictment that named Christopher B. Epps, the former commissioner of the Department of Corrections, and Cecil McCrory, a onetime state lawmaker who had become involved with the private prisons industry.

In the indictment, which formed the basis of Wednesday’s pleas, federal prosecutors accused the men of a scheme in which Mr. McCrory directed more than $1 million to Mr. Epps, including cash and mortgage payments, in exchange for lucrative state contracts.

Mr. Epps pleaded guilty on Wednesday to money laundering conspiracy and filing a false tax return. Mr. McCrory pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy.

Judge Henry T. Wingate scheduled sentencing hearings for June, and a lawyer for Mr. Epps, John M. Colette, said he expected him to be sent to prison.

“He worked his whole life to attain the pinnacle of his career in corrections, and now he’s facing a jail sentence,” Mr. Colette said in a telephone interview. “It was not a good day for anybody.”

Mr. Colette said that Mr. Epps was cooperating with federal investigators, and that “there are others involved allegedly who have not been charged just yet.”

Mr. McCrory’s lawyer did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The United States attorney’s office had no comment beyond an announcement of the guilty pleas, but Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement that Mr. Epps’s downfall “serves as an example that there are consequences for public corruption.”

Mississippi officials opened a review of state contracts after Mr. Epps’s indictment, and Mr. Bryant on Wednesday called for “meaningful reform to the state contracting process.”

During his 12 years as corrections commissioner, Mr. Epps was praised by some as a positive force in Jackson. But he was also criticized for poor conditions in the state’s prisons, as well as for Mississippi’s reliance on the private facilities that were ultimately connected to his own criminal conduct.

Despite his critics, Mr. Epps was well respected in Mississippi, where he cultivated a prominent profile built in part on his 20-year rise from prison guard to corrections chief. But by Wednesday morning in Judge Wingate’s courtroom, The Clarion-Ledger reported, Mr. Epps was reduced to offering an apology.

“I’m sorry for what I’ve done,” Mr. Epps said. “I’ve repented before God. I apologize to my family and the State of Mississippi.”