- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A defense lawyer said that a Jackson physician indicted on federal bribery charges fell victim to a “shakedown” by former Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps.

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday unsealed a July 13 indictment charging Dr. Carl Reddix, 57, with six counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud. Prosecutors say Reddix was paying cash bribes to Epps to secure medical contracts at state prisons.

Reddix pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Ball, who released Reddix on $10,000 unsecured bail. Reddix faces up to 80 years in prison and $1.75 million in fines if convicted.

Lisa Ross, Reddix’s defense attorney, did not deny that Reddix gave Epps money.

“It’s our position that Dr. Reddix is a victim of a shakedown,” Ross told reporters after the hearing. “Chris Epps shook him down and we believe when we review all the evidence in this case, the evidence will show that.”

Ross said she expects to ask for a delay in the Oct. 3 trial date.

Health Assurance won a contract to provide medical care to the privately run Walnut Grove Correctional Facility beginning in 2008. The indictment says the cash bribes began in 2012 at $6,000 a month, around when Epps awarded a contract to Health Assurance to also provide care at East Mississippi Correctional Facility and Marshall County Correctional Facility. Later, when Epps also awarded Health Assurance the contract for Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, the indictment says the bribes rose to $8,000 a month. In late 2014, by which time Epps had been caught and was secretly collecting evidence for federal prosecutors, the amounts rose to $9,000 for two months and then finally $9,500 in October 2014, it said.

The indictment describes Reddix as one of the owners of Health Assurance, although incorporation papers no longer list him as an officer. Other leaders include Reddix’s brother, Dr. Michael Reddix.

Records maintained by the Mississippi Center for Public Policy show Health Assurance collected more than $40 million from the state since 2003 and more than $22 million from Harrison, Hancock, Jackson, Pearl River, Rankin and Scott counties since 2004. The separate Reddix Medical Group was paid $1.7 million by Hinds County from 2004 to 2012, records show. Reddix-related companies also have done business in Alabama.

Charlene Priester and Hinds County Court Judge Melvin Priester said they provided legal services to Health Assurance.

Political operative Robert Simmons admitted in pleading guilty to a federal charge in February that he passed bribes from Health Assurance to a county supervisor in exchange for the Harrison County jail medical contract. Former Supervisor William Martin killed himself last year, hours before he was due in federal court on bribery charges.

Simmons is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 15.

The Harrison County contract was the most lucrative of Health Assurance’s county contracts, producing more than $12 million in revenue from 2004 to 2012. Ross said Wednesday the Simmons payments weren’t bribes.

Epps and Brandon businessman Cecil McCrory pleaded guilty in February 2015 to charges connected to the bribery scheme, which cast a harsh light on Mississippi politics and its prison system.

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 up to 20 years. He’s forfeiting $1.7 million in assets. Their sentencing has been delayed.

Former prison phone consultant Sam Waggoner and has pleaded guilty to bribing Epps. His sentencing has also been delayed.

Former state Rep. Irb Benjamin of Madison is charged with bribing Epps for contracts at prison work centers and county jails. Benjamin’s trial is now set for Oct. 3.

Federal prosecutors have said as many as 10 more could face criminal charges. Assistant U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca said this week that prosecutors will announce some of those charged on Monday, with defendants expected to appear before Ball. LaMarca told U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate at least one defendant is expected to appear before Wingate that day, which could indicate that someone might waive indictment and make an immediate guilty plea.

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This story has been corrected to show that Charlene Priester and Hinds County Court Judge Melvin Priester were not officers of Health Assurance, but instead provided the company with legal services.

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

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