by Kevin Bliss
In September 2018, Michael LeBlanc, Sr., Michael LeBlanc, Jr., Tawasky L. Ventroy and Jacque B. Jackson were indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges stemming from a 2014 corruption investigation centered on former Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher B. Epps. The four were accused of exchanging cash and casino chips for preferential treatment in securing contracts for commissary and phone services.
Epps was under investigation for taking more than $1.4 million in bribes and kickbacks when he and former Mississippi state lawmaker Cecil McCrory were indicted on 49 counts.
Epps immediately began cooperating with the FBI; with his assistance, they were able to bring charges against former state Senator Irb Benjamin, former MDOC insurance broker Guy “Butch” Evans, prison consultant Sam Waggoner, businessman Mark Lonogoria, consultant Robert Simmons, Dr. Cecil Reddix and the wife of former House Corrections Chairman Bennett Malone. Benjamin admitted to bribing Epps to keep certain jails full of prisoners so he could receive greater profits on contracted services at those facilities. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.42].
District Judge Henry Wingate, who sentenced Epps, was amazed at the scope of the corruption. “This is the largest graft operation in the state of Mississippi, definitely the largest I have seen,” he stated.
The indictments against LeBlancs, Ventroy and Jackson, who were reportedly associated with American Phone Systems and Brothers Commissary Services, both based in Louisiana, are just the latest, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca. More charges are expected.
The indictments alleged that LeBlanc, Sr. and Ventroy approached Epps on October 21, 2014 with $2,000 in cash and a promise of $5,000 more to influence him to award contracts to LeBlanc, Sr.’s company for prison commissary services. Epps promptly shared that information with the FBI.
LeBlanc, Jr. and Jackson approached Sheriff James Moore on December 8, 2014 with $2,000 in casino chips in the men’s restroom at a casino, in exchange for the commissary and phone contracts at the Kemper County Regional Correctional Facility. However, Moore was secretly assisting the FBI; he was never under investigation himself.
“As long as public corruption continues to be an issue in our state, I can promise you that the U.S. Attorney’s Office will be here to root it out, prosecute it, and ensure that justice is done. I want to personally thank Kemper County Sheriff James Moore for coming forward and working with us to catch those who violate our corruption laws,” said U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst.
Epps was sentenced to 20 years in February 2015. [See: PLN, Oct. 2017, p.16]. The LeBlancs, Ventroy and Jackson, who have pleaded guilty, face up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
In related news, on January 24, 2019, the Mississippi Attorney General’s office announced it had collected a total of $27 million in lawsuits filed against companies involved in the Epps corruption scandal. That amount included $5.2 million from private prison firm Management & Training Corp. (MTC); $4.6 million from Cornell Companies, which has since been acquired by GEO Group; $4 million from Wexford Health Sources, a private medical provider; $3.1 million from Keefe Commissary Network, LLC; $3.1 million from the C.N.W. Construction Company; $2 million from Branan Medical Corporation, since acquired by Alere, Inc.; and $1.3 million from Sentinel Offender Services, which provides electronic monitoring services.
Previously, the state had obtained a $2.5 million settlement from phone service provider Global Tel*Link (GTL). [See: PLN, April 2018, p.36; Mar. 2018, p.35].
Other companies that paid lesser settlements included CGL Facility Management, LLC and AdminPros, LLC. Another firm that was sued, Health Assurance, LLC, went out of business after filing for bankruptcy.
Of the $27 million collected, around $9.2 million is being returned to the Department of Corrections and $10 million will go to the general state budget. Attorney fees and costs in the lawsuits filed by the state totaled over $6 million.
“These companies – they had to pay and pay dearly,” said Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. “We did more than just disgorge them of their ill-gotten gains,” he added. “We recovered more.”
Yet some of the companies retained their contracts with the state despite the corruption scandal and settlements, including GTL and Sentinel, and none faced criminal charges. Thus, the end result appears to be business as usual.
Sources: www.katc.com, www.clarionledger.com, www.hastingstribune.com
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