Mississippians will be able to tell whether the criminal indictment faced by Christopher Epps means anything by how the 2015 edition of the Mississippi Legislature reacts.
A smattering of tsk-tsking over what appears to be a provable years-long practice and pattern of bribery and extortion at the pinnacle of state prison operations will mean very little.
If, however, the Legislature moves decisively to add complete transparency to prison finances — does away with no-bid contracts — then we’ll know lawmakers seriously want to end such abysmal waste of public money.
Gov. Phil Bryant immediately ordered a top-down review.
Good start, but not enough.
The indictment accusing Epps and businessman Cecil McCrory was unsealed earlier this month. It alleges at least $700,000 in bribes paid to the 22-year commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
A couple of underlying realities:
Federal investigations stop when investigators have enough, not when they have it all. When schemes last as long as this one (said to have begun in 2007), it’s ludicrous to think only two people were involved and that illegal transactions were limited to one business relationship. Actually, it’s way past ludicrous.
More importantly, in this situation it’s the game that’s to blame as much as the players. Mississippians must ask themselves how in the world is it that any one official — especially one in charge of a $330 million budget — can award a lucrative no-bid contract year after year with no questions asked.
A system like this is like one boxer leaning into the left hook of another. It’s practically begging for embarrassment.
And, guilty or innocent, Christopher Epps did not create the system in which he apparently had so much discretion and so little accountability.
Not excusing him if he did what he’s accused of doing. Not in the slightest.
Many centuries ago, people with time to think about such things decided criminal behavior has two parts. One is called mens rea and the other is called actus reus.
The first one means mental awareness of criminal conduct. The second refers to the physical part of a bad deed. An arsonist must intend to set a fire and actually set a fire.
Criminal law also uses Latin for two other relevant terms, mala in se and mala prohibita.
The second one applies to behaviors that are bad only because they are defined as bad. Running a stop sign, for example, does not require bad intentions.
Mala in se actions are evil, objectively evil — even if they’re not against the law. Lying to one’s mother, for example, is mala in se, but not illegal.
These definitions speak to what’s in people’s hearts — to their degree of culpability for what they’ve done.
Mississippians have admired, at least tacitly, Christopher Epps, for a long time. He was appointed by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and retained during both terms of Gov. Haley Barbour and most recently by Bryant. He came up through the corrections ranks to be named one of the few African Americans in a leadership role in a state where African Americans are severely underrepresented in leadership roles. He’s the first black person to head a 21,500-inmate system were the black-to-white ratio is 3.5 to 1.
But if a fraction of the allegations are true, he’s betrayed everyone. He’s personally supervised 17 of the 21 executions Mississippi has conducted since 1983 — and, as harsh as it is to say — may have had more evil in his heart over a longer period of time than some condemned to die.
Attempting to refute excellent stories on abysmal prison conditions and operations by Jerry Mitchell (no kin) in The Clarion-Ledger, Epps wrote to the state’s largest newspaper, also earlier this month. In his column, the corrections commissioner called on the press to focus on positive trends in the system, including more students attaining GEDs and such.
Epps also said accusations of wrongdoing were “off base.”
The U.S. Attorney does not think so. The indictment alleges major, major systemic pollution. Unless something changes in the script, a one-time prison guard who rose to be a national leader and spokesman on corrections issues will learn what life is like behind bars. He won’t be at the infamous Parchman in the Mississippi Delta. But no matter. His gig is up.
What remains is to see how Mississippi’s leaders react.
If they say the shame is all his, they’ll be wrong.
They can fix the system that invited and, indeed, coddled such abuse.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.