JACKSON, Miss. — A former prison official and a businessman are admitting guilt in a bribery scheme that involved hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts and helped the one-time head of Mississippi's Corrections Department buy a home in a gated subdivision, a beachfront condo and top-of-the-line Mercedes Benz vehicles.
"I'm sorry for what I've done. It was wrong," former Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps said in court as he changed his plea to guilty on federal charges of money laundering conspiracy and income tax evasion.
Brandon businessman Cecil McCrory's lawyer said his client also plans to plead guilty later Wednesday. The lawyer wouldn't say which charges were covered by the plea.
Both McCrory and Epps had earlier pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors say McCrory gave Epps hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes starting in 2007. In exchange, prosecutors say, Epps steered prison contracts to companies McCrory owned or for which McCrory was a consultant.
Epps faces up to 23 years in federal prison and fines of $750,000 when U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate sentences him June 9. Epps also could be ordered to make restitution.
Prosecutors say Epps reaped $1.5 million in gains from the bribery scheme, which ran until 2014. As part of his plea agreement, Epps has agreed to forfeit nearly $2 million in real estate, bank accounts, cars, plus $69,600 in cash that the FBI agents found when they searched his Flowood home.
Epps remains free on $25,000 unsecured bond pending sentencing and can keep living in his home until then. Defense lawyer John Colette said Epps' wife will try to retain some of the property on the grounds that her earnings helped pay for it.
Prosecutor Mike Hurst said the value of what's being seized exceeds the amount of bribes Epps took, but the government is allowed to seize it all because the bribes were comingled with legitimate earnings.
Hurst told Wingate on Wednesday that the government was prepared to present witnesses who would testify that Epps had ordered them to award Corrections Department contracts to McCrory or companies he represented, sometimes without bids. McCrory lobbied for a range of companies doing business with the state prison system, including Utah-based Management and Training Corp., a private firm that runs four prisons for Mississippi.
Hurst said witnesses also were prepared to testify that bribes were paid and that they saw Epps depositing cash in banks. He said the witnesses would be backed up by financial records and wiretaps.
Epps worked for 32 years at the Department of Corrections and was its longest-serving commissioner, with a dozen years in the position. He is a double rarity — an employee who started at the lowest rung and worked his way to the top, and an agency director who was chosen by and served under three governors: one Democrat and two Republicans, including current Gov. Phil Bryant.
After Epps pleaded guilty Wednesday, Bryant said in a news release that he appreciates prosecutors pursuing the case.
"I hope it serves as an example that there are consequences for public corruption," Bryant said.
McCrory served in the state House from 1988 to 1994 and has been a Rankin County justice court judge. He resigned Nov. 4 as president of the Rankin County School Board.
Epps is a native of the tiny Delta town of Tchula, and he earned his bachelor's degree in elementary education from Mississippi Valley State University. He started working in 1982 as guard at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.