- Associated Press - Friday, March 3, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Former Mississippi legislator Irb Benjamin was sentenced Friday to nearly six years in prison for bribes he paid to former state Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps, but his sentence could be reduced if information he provided to investigators results in prosecutions of others in the bribery scandal.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca told U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate that “it’s just a matter of time” until people that Benjamin informed on are indicted in federal court Gulfport.

Prosecutors have long promised more indictments in the bribery scheme that centered on Epps, but there’s been little public movement lately in Mississippi. Six people have pleaded guilty, and four others have been charged, including one in Alabama.

Wingate sentenced Benjamin to 70 months in prison. He also ordered the former state representative and senator to pay a $100,000 fine and forfeit $260,782 within 90 days.

“I’m so sorry that I destroyed all the history and character that my family stood for,” Benjamin told Wingate. “I have no one to blame but myself.”

Benjamin, who represented Alcorn County as a state representative and senator before moving to Madison, will report to federal prison on May 16. He pleaded guilty in October to one count of bribery, and said again Friday that Epps demanded bribes, or else threatened to withhold some inmates from regional jails Benjamin helped develop in Alcorn, Chickasaw and Washington counties. Such a move could have made the jails money-losers.

“I should have just walked away,” Benjamin said. “I was pressured.”

Benjamin has estimated he paid Epps between $180,000 and $225,000 in cash bribes to secure Epps’ support for the regional jails, as well as for drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs his company ran at inmate work centers in Alcorn and Simpson counties. Benjamin’s plea actually covers bribes paid for those rehab programs.

Benjamin said Friday that Epps also threatened to withhold inmates from Chickasaw County unless officials signed a prison phone contract with a business operated by Sam Waggoner of Carthage. Waggoner pleaded guilty in 2015 to bribing Epps and in January was ordered to serve five years in prison, pay a $100,000 fine and forfeit $200,000.

Epps is scheduled to be sentenced May 24. He faces up to 23 years in prison.

Lawyer Joe Hollomon argued leniency was justified considering Benjamin’s age, health problems, and legislative achievements. More than 40 people sent letters asking Wingate to show mercy.

“He has led a life of accomplishment and a life he can be proud of up until the time he met Chris Epps and this situation developed,” Hollomon said.

Wingate rejected that argument, but sentenced Benjamin to the minimum prison term called for by sentencing guidelines. The judge said he’s willing to later consider a sentence reduction if Benjamin helps in future prosecutions.

“I’ll be waiting to see what the government has to say in regards to your cooperation in these other matters,” he said.

___

An earlier version of this story has been corrected to show Benjamin’s sentence is nearly six years, not nearly seven.

___

Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/JeffAmy .

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide