1 Pleading Guilty in Mississippi Prison Bribery Case | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

1 Pleading Guilty in Mississippi Prison Bribery Case

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — One man pleaded guilty Friday and another was indicted on federal charges that they paid bribes and kickbacks to a former Mississippi corrections commissioner in exchange for contracts.

Sam Waggoner, 61, of Carthage, agreed Friday to plead guilty to one count of bribery after waiving indictment before a federal judge.

Former state Sen. Irb Benjamin, 68, of Madison, pleaded not guilty to three counts of conspiracy and bribery. He was released on $10,000 bond.

The two men are the latest people charged in a bribery scandal centering on former Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps.

State Auditor Stacey Pickering said Friday that he expects charges to be brought against other people later. Epps and former state Rep. Cecil McCrory pleaded guilty months ago and await sentencing.

Benjamin and Waggoner are accused of passing cash to Epps, a longtime chief of the state prison system, according to authorities. In return, authorities added, Epps steered contracts to them.

Pickering said Benjamin and Waggoner have been cooperating with prosecutors.

"I would expect all individuals to cooperate as they have been to this point," he told The Associated Press.

Epps and McCrory were indicted in 2014 in the same case and pleaded guilty in February. Epps resigned as commissioner after he was indicted but just before the indictment was unsealed. Each has agreed to give up more than $1 million in assets as part of their sentences.

Prosecutors said Benjamin was indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud and two counts of bribery. The indictment charges that Benjamin benefited from the scheme in two ways.

First, prosecutors say he gave Epps bribes and kickbacks in exchange for the state selecting his company, Mississippi Correctional Management, to provide drug and alcohol treatment services to inmates at state work centers in Alcorn and Simpson counties. The company collected about $774,000 for those services.

Second, the indictment claims that Benjamin paid Epps in exchange for Epps' helping the company get consulting contracts with Alcorn, Washington and Chickasaw counties. All three of those counties built regional jails, which had to be certified by the American Correctional Association before being paid to house state inmates.

Benjamin was supposed to help those counties get and keep that certification. His company collected $862,000 from the three counties. Though Benjamin lived 200 miles away, he was paid to be warden of the jail in his native Alcorn County until he resigned in November. He lived in Alcorn County when he was a state senator from 1980 to 1992, later moving to a Jackson suburb.

Benjamin is also alleged by authorities to have paid monthly kickbacks to Epps out of consultant fees he received from Carter Goble Lee, which was hired in 2014 to provide maintenance services to the state prison system.

The indictment alleges that Benjamin made regular cash payments of $1,000 to $2,000 to Epps beginning in 2010, in exchange for Epps' influence. It states that for three months in 2014, Benjamin was getting $2,000 a month from Carter Goble Lee and passing on $600 to Epps. By that time, Epps was already in talks with federal prosecutors about pleading guilty.

Waggoner was charged, without being indicted, of bribing Epps while working as a consultant for prison phone company Global Tel-Link. Being charged without indictment often indicates a defendant had already agreed to plead guilty. Waggoner was pleading guilty within hours of when the charge was announced.

The charge says Waggoner was getting 5 percent of Global Tel-Link's revenue from its Mississippi contract and paid Epps a cash kickback out of his monthly commission in July and August 2014.

"These allegations against Mr. Waggoner are very serious and we have only just learned about them," Global Tel-Link spokesman Kirk Vespestad said in a statement Friday. "We have not been contacted by law enforcement at this time and are not aware of any further investigation. GTL is prepared to fully cooperate with the authorities in the event it becomes necessary."

AP left messages Friday for Carter Goble Lee and the company did not immediately respond.

Waggoner — the nephew of a late state transportation commissioner — faces up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. Benjamin faces up to 40 years in prison and up to $750,000 in fines. Prosecutors said they want to make Benjamin and Waggoner forfeit gains from the crimes, an avenue they're pursuing against Epps and McCrory.

Prosecutors want Waggoner to forfeit $200,000, while they didn't list an amount for Benjamin.

Epps faces up to 23 years in prison and fines of $750,000. He has agreed to forfeit $2 million in assets.

McCrory faces up to 20 years and fines of $500,000. He's agreed to forfeit $1.7 million in assets.

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