- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2016

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) - A business and government consultant pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal bribery charge, admitting he paid thousands of dollars in kickbacks to the former head of Mississippi’s prison system and a county supervisor on the Gulf Coast.

A prosecutor said Robert Simmons considered the payments “the cost of doing business in Mississippi,” the Sun Herald reported (https://bit.ly/20HAFr2 ). Evidence showed Simmons’ clients received contracts worth millions of dollars.

Simmons, 60, pleaded to the bribery charge Thursday in U.S. District Court in Gulfport. Sentencing is set for May 26.

Simmons admitted that between 2005 and August 2014, he bribed then-Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and a Harrison County supervisor whose name was not mentioned during the plea hearing. Epps has pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing in a bribery case.

Simmons told investigators he drove to various Gulf Coast bank branches to deposit bribe money into Epps’ account, then sent a text message that usually said, “Count it 14 done.”

“Mr. Simmons said that he knew it was wrong to deposit the money into Mr. Epps’ account, but believed it was ‘the cost of doing business in Mississippi,’” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Golden.

After the hearing, Simmons’ attorney, K.C. Hightower of Gulfport, said, “Mr. Simmons has accepted responsibility for what he did, and he’s looking forward to getting on with his life.”

Golden said prosecutors plan to recommend Simmons be sent to prison for 2.5 years, out of a potential maximum of 10 years, because he cooperated with investigators. However, U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden does not have to follow the recommendation.

Golden said California-based Sentinel Offender Services LLC, which Simmons represented, was competing with another company in July 2012 to provide probation and parole services for the Mississippi Department of Corrections. The other company was represented by Brandon businessman Cecil McCrory, who also has pleaded guilty to bribing Epps.

Epps and McCrory met before the contract was awarded, Golden told the judge.

“Mr. Epps told Mr. McCrory that McCrory had made enough money and Epps felt obligated to award the contract to Sentinel,” Golden said.

Evidence showed Sentinel paid Simmons a consulting fee of $4,000 a month from July 2012 through August 2014. Each month, Simmons deposited $1,400 into Epps’ bank account. The kickback to Epps was half the consulting fee after Simmons deducted 30 percent for taxes, Golden said.

Simmons received a consulting fee of $10,000 a month from AJA Management & Technical Services Inc. of Jackson for 18 months while the company managed expansions of the East Mississippi and Walnut Grove correction facilities. Simmons admitted he paid Epps an undisclosed portion of that fee each month.

Simmons also admitted bribing a county supervisor with $2,000 monthly payments from a consulting fee provided by Health Assurance LLC of Jackson. The company had a contract to provide medical services at the Harrison County jail. Health Assurance paid Simmons a total consulting fee that climbed to $10,000 a month while he represented the company from 2005 through 2011.

If Simmons had gone to trial, Golden said, prosecutors were prepared to present testimony from FBI agents, video and audio recordings and wiretaps. After he was confronted with the evidence against him, Golden said, Simmons signed a plea agreement in December.

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This story has been corrected to show that a prosecutor, not Robert Simmons’ attorney, said Simmons considered the payments “the cost of doing business in Mississippi.”

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Information from: The Sun Herald, https://www.sunherald.com


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