- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Plans to sentence former Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and Brandon businessman Cecil McCrory on July 19 are in peril after a judge delayed a hearing on related evidence.

U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate on Thursday gave prosecutors until June 29 to gather more evidence from 15 companies that prosecutors say bribed Epps, McCrory or both. The judge said he’ll then decide how long defense lawyers need after that to prepare for a hearing. He also ordered prosecutors to turn over names and descriptions of proposed witnesses.

“What we have here is some material submitted to the defense at the last minute,” Wingate said. “The defense should have time to see documents so important to sentencing.”

Prosecutors hope the evidence will require probation officers to recommend that Wingate give longer prison sentences to Epps and McCrory. Wingate could accept those recommendations or rule differently.

It could be hard to squeeze all the required action in before July 19, because probation officers will need to revise the sentencing report and then prosecutors and defense lawyers will need time to review and possibly challenge it.

Epps faces up to 23 years in prison after pleading guilty in February 2015 to money laundering and filing false tax returns related to $1.47 million in bribes prosecutors say he took. He’s also forfeiting $1.7 million in assets.

McCrory, a former state House member, pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering conspiracy in February 2015 and faces a 20-year sentence. He agreed to forfeit $1.7 million in assets.

The lawyers for Epps and McCrory had objected that prosecutors had only begun giving them documents Monday and had provided no names of witnesses before Thursday’s hearing.

“I think I’m entitled to have the documents and the names of all the witnesses,” said Epps’ lawyer, John Colette.

Defense lawyers also said the government should have to prove that each contract was associated with bribery, saying consulting payments to McCrory alone wasn’t enough proof.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca told Wingate that defense lawyers could have subpoenaed their own information before the hearing. He had planned 10 witnesses Thursday. LaMarca also noted that the rules aren’t as stringent as during a trial.

The case overall has been close to frozen since April. Carlos Tanner, McCrory’s lawyer, had told Wingate in April that McCrory was considering withdrawing his guilty plea, and Tanner said he was still drafting a motion to ask Wingate to allow that. He said Thursday that he hoped to file it within the next two weeks. That could mean McCrory could face trial on the original 15-count indictment, which calls for up to 210 years in prison.

Prosecutors had said in April that more people would be indicted soon. Thursday, LaMarca said new indictments might be released within the next month.

Besides McCrory, former prison phone consultant Sam Waggoner and Harrison County political operative Robert Simmons have also pleaded guilty to bribing Epps in return for contracts.

Another former state representative, Irb Benjamin of Madison, is scheduled for trial on charges that he bribed Epps for contracts at prison work centers and county jails.

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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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