JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A former state senator pleaded guilty in Mississippi's prison contract bribery scandal Tuesday, becoming the sixth person to admit to guilt in the investigation centering on former Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps.
Irb Benjamin of Madison pleaded guilty to one count of bribery before U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate in Jackson.
Benjamin faces up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. Prosecutors also want him to forfeit money he gained. He remains free until sentencing on $10,000 bail.
Indicted in August 2015, Benjamin faced one count of honest services wire fraud and two counts of bribery. If he had been convicted of all three, he could have faced up to 40 years in prison and up to $750,000 in fines.
Benjamin admitted in court that 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, according to court documents.
He also admitted paying Epps to help the company obtain consulting contracts worth $862,000 overall from three counties: Alcorn, Washington and Chickasaw.
All three 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, according to the indictment.
Though Benjamin lived about 200 miles away, he was paid as warden of the jail in his native Alcorn County until he resigned in November 2014, according to court documents. He lived there while a state senator from 1980 to 1992, later moving to suburban Jackson.
Court papers say 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 the company and passing on $600 to Epps. By that time, Epps was already cooperating with prosecutors, taping some conversations with people allegedly bribing him, records show.
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. Cecil McCrory, a former state House member, pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering conspiracy and faces up to 20 years. He's also forfeiting $1.7 million in assets. Their sentencing has been delayed.
The following also have pleaded guilty:
— Mark Longoria, the head of a Texas company that sold specimen cups to the prison system, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of conspiracy over bribes paid to Epps out of consulting fees that Longoria's company paid McCrory.
— Sam Waggoner, a prison phone consultant, pleaded guilty to bribing Epps.
— Robert Simmons, a Harrison County political operative, pleaded guilty to passing bribes from a prison medical contractor to Harrison County Supervisor William Martin.
Martin killed himself in 2015, hours before he was due in court on bribery charges.