Mississippi’s big shakedown

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, August 3, 2016

As her client entered a not guilty plea, Jackson attorney Lisa Ross hit the nail on the head. She used “shakedown” to describe the flavor of Mississippi’s unraveling corrections outrage. Exactly.

The judicial wheeling and dealing continues. The big fly may avoid being swatted.

In November 2014, Christopher Epps, respected by his peers, the press and public, suddenly retired as head of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. The next day he appeared in federal court to face indictments charging dozens of corrupt activities — bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and tax evasion.

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In February 2015, Epps admitted guilt to one count of bribery and one count of tax evasion. His sentencing was delayed, then delayed, then delayed again and delayed some more. It is currently “indefinite.”

As his attorney, John Collette explains, Epps has fully cooperated since and perhaps a bit before his own indictment. In more direct terms, he’s been providing evidence leading to the indictment of others — no one knows how many there will be — who bilked taxpayers out of untold millions of dollars for the privilege of doing business with state government.

At this point, it appears anyone who provided even a nickel’s worth of goods or services to MDOC, which has an annual budget approaching $500 million, likely padded their bills to include the cost of payoffs.

Ross indicated that was the case with her client, Jackson physician Carl Reddix. The indictment says Dr. Reddix gave cash bribes and kickbacks to Epps in the range of $8,000 to $9,500 monthly until October 2014, the month before Epps was indicted. In exchange, Dr. Reddix’s company, Health Assurance LLC, retained contracts worth $29 million to provide medical services at four prisons in the state. (For perspective, $29 million would provide pay and benefits to 1,000 corrections officers for a year.)

Whenever scandals like this erupt, outsiders tend to wonder who played the role of villain? Was a well-meaning official corrupted by bribes dangled by unscrupulous vendors of goods and services? Or were otherwise honest business folk told to pay up if they wanted to feed at the public trough?

Now, nearly two years after the Epps indictment and after a steady stream of vendor indictments, it certainly appears Epps was not sitting passively in his Jackson office being plagued by visitors who conspired to lead him down the path of illegality.

A far more likely scenario, widely known in the business community and in the halls of government, is shakedown. Want a state contract? Find out who has to be paid off and add it to the bill.

Yes, any and all who pay bribes and kickbacks are criminals. They could have walked away. They could have gone to the FBI or gone public. They chose to go with the flow, play along and give “gratuities.” So one by one they wait for the U.S. marshals to knock at their door and offer a pair of silver bracelets to wear down to the courthouse.

Collette has been transparent about Epps’ motive: A lenient sentence in exchange for his client list.

This happens, of course. Prosecutors parley small-timers to catch big-timers. And they also get big-timers to snare small-timers. A drug wholesaler caught with 10 kilos of cocaine agrees to set up 10 of his retailers. The retailers get arrested, the wholesaler gets a reduced sentence for his “cooperation” and the prosecutor gets 10 notches on his resume instead of one.

Certainly Ross will argue the unfairness. Indictments contain allegations, not facts. But there’s every reason Dr. Reddix would have been just as happy fulfilling his contract without padding it to cover the payoffs.

When Epps was charged, Gov. Phil Bryant immediately formed a group to find out how it was that one state employee had so much power over who received the state’s business. It was a good panel that made good recommendations that have been enacted. But let’s be clear: The previous way of doing business was widely known.

That said, there’s a stain on all who manage the finances of this cash-strapped state. All waste is regrettable, but somehow it’s worse to know corruption has cost Mississippi taxpayers untold millions at the same time services are being cut.

Bryant took action, but there’s been an aura of silence elsewhere in state officialdom. One more thing: “Eliminate waste and fraud” is a familiar refrain in tight times. But in this case, once again Mississippi has left it to the feds.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.