Bribes 'cost of doing business in Mississippi,' saysconsultant who pleaded guilty
GULFPORT -- Coast business and government consultant Robert Simmons pleaded guilty to briberyin federal court Thursday, saying he paid thousands in kickbacks to the state correctionscommissioner Scheduling Institute and a Harrison County supervisor because he considered it "thecost of doing business in Mississippi."
In exchange, Simmons' clients received contractsworth millions, evidence showed.
Simmons, 60, entered his guilty plea to the briberycharge before U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden. Heis scheduled to be sentenced at 9 a.m. May 26 inU.S. District Court in Gulfport.
Simmons admitted that between 2005 and August2014, he bribed former state Corrections
Commissioner Christopher Epps and a Harrison County supervisor who went un
named during the one-hour plea hearing. Epps has pleaded guilty in a separate bribery case.
Simmons told investigators he drove to various Coast bankbranches to deposit bribe money into Epps' account, thensent a text message that usually said, "Count it 14 done."
"Mr. Simmons said that he knew it was wrong to depositthe money into Mr. Epps' account, but believed it was 'the
cost of doing business in Mississippi'," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Golden told the judge.
Simmons paid at the county level, too. William Martin, who served for 16 years as a Harrison Countysupervisor, committed suicide one year ago, at age 58, rather than face bribery charges in the case.Martin had previously served for years as an assistant district attorney for Harrison, Hancock andStone counties, prosecuting murders and other crimes.
Golden said prosecutors plan to recommend Simmons be sent to prison for 2.5 years, out of apotential maximum of 10 years, because he cooperated with investigators. However, Ozerden doesnot have to follow the recommendation.
Golden said California-based Sentinel Offender Services LLC, which Simmons represented, wascompeting with another company in July 2012 to provide probation and parole services for theMississippi Department of Corrections. The other company was represented by Brandonbusinessman 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 toSentinel," Golden said.
Evidence showed Sentinel paid Simmons a consulting fee of $4,000 a month from July 2012 throughAugust 2014. Each month, Simmons deposited $1,400 into Epps' bank account. The kickback toEpps 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 ServicesInc. of Jackson for 18 months while the company managed expansions of the East Mississippi andWalnut Grove correction facilities. Simmons admitted he paid Epps an undisclosed portion of thatfee each month.
Simmons also admitted bribing the county supervisor with $2,000 monthly payments from aconsulting fee provided by Health Assurance LLC of Jackson. The company had a contract to providemedical services at the Harrison County jail. Health Assurance paid Simmons a total consulting feethat 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 evidence againsthim that included testimony from FBI agents Tye Breedlove and Molly Blythe, video and audiorecordings and wiretaps.
After he was confronted with the evidence against him, Golden said, Simmons signed a pleaagreement in December.
After the hearing, Simmons' attorney, K.C. Hightower of Gulfport, said, "Mr. Simmons has acceptedresponsibility for what he did, and he's looking forward to getting on with his life."