JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Christopher Epps once called himself the "tallest hog at the trough," but he was cut down to size Wednesday when a judge sentenced Mississippi's former corrections commissioner to nearly 20 years in prison for crimes connected to more than $1.4 million in bribes.
U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate handed down the sentence, rejecting prosecutors' recommendation for a more lenient 13 years. Wingate said Epps' decision to break into his former house to retrieve outdoor lights in October — after Epps had pleaded guilty - made him question whether the 56-year-old truly took responsibility for his crimes. He also ordered Epps to pay a $100,000 fine. Epps has already forfeited more than $1.7 million in assets.
"This is the largest graft operation that certainly I have seen, and I have seen a lot," said Wingate, a federal judge since 1985. "He has bruised tremendously the image of the state of Mississippi."
Epps pleaded guilty in 2015 to charges of money laundering and filing false tax returns related to bribes he extracted from contractors doing business with the prison system. The charges carried a maximum sentence of 23 years.
Epps has been jailed since Wingate revoked his bail in November following the house break-in, and will get credit for time served toward his sentence of 19 years and 7 months. In shackles and a jail jumpsuit Wednesday, Epps told Wingate that he had been motivated by "greed."
"I've made some stupid mistakes I will regret for the rest of my life," Epps said, reading from a document.
The bribes allowed Epps, Mississippi's longest-serving corrections commissioner, to pay off the mortgage on his $500,000 house in a gated suburban subdivision, buy a beachfront condo on the Gulf Coast, acquire two luxury cars and accumulate hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments. Evidence showed Epps was taking monthly cash payments, then trying to deposit cash in banks in amounts small enough to escape scrutiny. He even got Brandon businessman Cecil McCrory to take a bag with $40,000 in dirty money, label it as proceeds from a tractor sale and wire it to Epps' investment account.
But unbeknownst to Epps, Leake County Sheriff Greg Waggoner had reported concerns about the prison system to investigators in 2009. By June 2014, when FBI agents asked Epps to come to their Jackson office on the pretext that someone had threatened his life, they had been collecting evidence on Epps for years, including tapping his phone. Once confronted, Epps agreed to help prosecutors, secretly recording conversations and enticing contractors to pay higher bribes.
Others who have pleaded guilty include McCrory, inmate health provide Dr. Carl Reddix of Jackson, Harrison County political consultant Robert Simmons, former state Sen. Irb Benjamin, prison phone consultant Sam Waggoner, Texas drug-testing supplier Mark Longoria and Alabama health care consultant Michael Goddard. Former Harrison County Supervisor William Martin killed himself in 2015, hours before he was due in federal court on bribery charges.
FBI Agent Ty Breedlove told Wingate on Wednesday that Epps was the best source he has had in 15 years as an agent.
Two others still face charges of bribing Epps: insurance broker Guy E. "Butch" Evans and Teresa Malone, the wife of a former state representative. Discussions Wednesday in court indicated investigations remain active against six or seven other people in Mississippi and Louisiana, including one who has already been secretly indicted.
Defense attorney John Colette denied that Epps had extorted bribes from contractors, despite testimony from other defendants. Wingate questioned how much leniency he should show Epps for turning in others.
"You're asking he get credit for revealing the involvement of conspirators who he may have brought into the conspiracy," the judge said.
Epps told Wingate the "tallest hog at the trough" remark, caught on tape, was a joke, and he is actually a humble person. Wingate told Colette he was unmoved.
"In this instance, we have an elaborate scheme which allowed your client to lead an extravagant lifestyle while his criminal conduct made a mockery of his position as head of the Department of Corrections," Wingate said.
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