- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 29, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - As many as 11 more people may face criminal charges stemming from a Mississippi prison contract bribery scheme, a federal prosecutor said Wednesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca told U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate during a hearing that prosecutors plan to announce the charges by mid-July. The hearing concerned evidence relating to the sentencing of former Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and Brandon businessman Cecil McCrory.

The prosecutor also said inquiries reach beyond prison-related corruption and stretch outside Mississippi.

“We’re getting farther away from the trunk of the tree to the branches, but it all began with Mr. Epps, with the trunk,” he said.

LaMarca estimated that the net benefit to companies as a result of Epps’ corrupt actions, after some costs were subtracted, was more than $65 million.

He said 10 more people could face federal charges, while one could face state charges. LaMarca said investigators have determined that Epps demanded money to exercise his influence not only at the state level, but among county supervisors. Because Epps controlled where state inmates were housed, that gave him influence over local jails as well, LaMarca said.

“Through his position, he was able to wield a great deal of influence, for which Mr. Epps wanted to be compensated above his salary,” he said.

Epps and McCrory pleaded guilty in February 2015. Epps faces up to 23 years on charges of money laundering and filing false tax returns related to $1.47 million in bribes prosecutors say he took. He’s forfeiting $1.7 million in assets. McCrory, a former state House member, pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering conspiracy and faces a 20-year sentence. He agreed to forfeit $1.7 million in assets.

In addition to McCrory, former prison phone consultant Sam Waggoner and Harrison County political operative Robert Simmons have pleaded guilty to bribing Epps in return for contracts. Former state Rep. Irb Benjamin of Madison is charged with bribing Epps for contracts at prison work centers and county jails. Benjamin’s July 5 trial is likely to be delayed.

Epps’ sentencing could be delayed again past the current July 18 date by prosecutors’ efforts to increase the recommended length of his prison sentence.

If the court sentences Epps based on the prosecutors’ $65 million estimate, federal sentencing guidelines would recommend a maximum of 23 years. However, defense lawyer John Colette continued Wednesday to ask Wingate to instead sentence Epps based on the bribes he collected. Lawyers said Wednesday that if the $1.47 million amount is used, Epps faces a recommended sentence between 14 and 17 1/2 years.

Wingate doesn’t have to accept either recommendation, and prosecutors have agreed to recommend less prison time for Epps because of his cooperation.

Calculating benefit requires examining financial statements of 16 contractors. Colette said he received more than 1,500 pages of documents in the last week and needs at least 30 days to review them. Four companies are asking Wingate to shield their information from public view, while four others haven’t responded to subpoenas. Wingate said he would hold a hearing in the next 10 days to consider requests for protective orders, and to consider ordering companies that haven’t responded to show why Wingate shouldn’t hold them in contempt.

Wingate said he’d wait until the show-cause hearing to decide on whether he’ll again delay sentencing.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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