JACKSON, Miss. — The highest-ranking former politician yet snared by Mississippi’s bribes-for-prison-contracts scandal said Tuesday that the longtime corrections commissioner, Christopher Epps, had pressed him for years to “put something in my hand.”
As former state Sen. Irb Benjamin pleaded guilty to bribing Epps, he told U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate that he finally gave in to Epps’ demands while consulting for Alcorn, Washington and Chickasaw counties, each of which was building a regional jail to be filled with state inmates.
Benjamin said Epps threatened to supply only the minimum number of inmates required under state contracts, which could have caused the counties to lose money on the projects and possibly have to raise taxes to pay for them.
“He made it clear: ‘If I don’t get paid, you don’t get inmates,'” Benjamin told the judge.
Benjamin became the sixth person to plead guilty in the scandal. He faces up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines, rather than 40 years in prison and $750,000 in fines before the plea. Prosecutors also want him to forfeit money he gained. Wingate set a Jan. 24 sentencing date and Benjamin remains free on $10,000 bail.
Epps faces up to 23 years after pleading guilty to money laundering and filing false tax returns related to $1.47 million in bribes prosecutors say he took. He is forfeiting $1.7 million in assets. His sentencing has been delayed; the judge set an Oct. 27 status hearing for Epps and two other defendants.
Though Epps cooperated with investigators, wearing a wiretap to record meetings with Benjamin and others, those who paid bribes have consistently painted Epps as the one who initially asked for money. Like others, Benjamin said he feared Epps would choke off his prison-dependent business if he refused.
“He could have put us out of business real easy,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin’s lawyer, though, acknowledged that his client should have gone to authorities instead of paying the money.
Instead, Benjamin paid what he estimated as between $180,000 and $225,000 in cash bribes to Epps to secure to secure his support for the regional jails as well as the drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs that Benjamin’s Mississippi Correctional Management ran at inmate work centers in Alcorn and Simpson counties.
Benjamin told the judge he would hand over wads of cash in handshakes during meetings in Epps’ office at the Department of Corrections. Benjamin said he would try to avoid those meetings, but Epps would summon him, demanding amounts that increased from $1,000 a meeting in 2012 to $7,600 in 2014.
“I paid him,” said Benjamin, a Madison resident who formerly lived in Alcorn County. “I was not happy about it.”
Benjamin, who served a term in the state House and two terms in the Senate as a Democrat, said he was actually relieved in a way when FBI agents finally approached him about the bribes, because that put an end to them.
“It was a burden. It was a strain. I had a heart attack in the middle of it,” Benjamin said. “It was a bad deal and I couldn’t get away from it.”