The Commercial Appeal
In Epps case, proceedings moving slowly
Thursday was like Groundhog Day in the Christopher Epps prosecution. Everything was on repeat.
Lawyers were again arguing in federal court over how to count the damage that the former Mississippi corrections commissioner did to the state through a bribery scheme with Brandon businessman and former state House member Cecil McCrory.
McCrory’s lawyer said he’s still considering asking U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate to allow McCrory to withdraw his guilty plea.
And prosecutors said they’re still on the cusp of unsealing more indictments in the prosecution.
That’s pretty much where things left off following the previous hearing in April. Then, Wingate decided he didn’t have enough information to sentence Epps under the prosecution’s theory that the recommended sentence should be calculated based on the economic loss to the state and not just on the $1.47 million in bribes that both sides agree Epps took. Some of that information has now arrived, but Wingate ruled defense lawyers need more time to review it.
Prosecutors had initially suggested the value of the loss was a staggering $868 million, but it turns out that’s the gross value of all the contracts Epps approved for 15 companies in question. Both sides now agree that they need to seek the net benefit to the companies, which is a measure of something like profit, although exactly what should be included or excluded in expenses remains a matter of dispute.
The government lists 15 companies that were part of the scheme to bribe McCrory and Epps. McCrory’s lawyer, Carlos Tanner, says the government should have to prove that the companies knew the payments to McCrory were bribes.
“The whole premise here is that but for the bribe, (prison management firm) Geo wouldn’t have gotten the contract,” Tanner told Wingate. “It would have to be for work he (McCrory) didn’t do. The only way the government’s theory holds water is if Geo knew there was a bribe here.”
That opens the doorway to a question that has lurked in the background since the indictment against Epps and McCrory was unsealed nearly two years ago: Why haven’t the companies or their employees faced criminal charges? The cast of companies alleged to have made payments features some prominent names in the world of private prison contracting.
Wingate asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca whether Geo Group, the Florida-based private prison firm that used to run three Mississippi prisons, was a target of criminal inquiry before Geo Group Finance Director John Tyrrell took the stand. LaMarca said prosecutors have no plans to charge Geo.