Louisiana men to plead guilty to trying to bribe Mississippi sheriff with casino chips

Published 8:59 pm Sunday, August 18, 2019

Four Louisiana men say they’ll plead guilty to charges that they tried to bribe a Mississippi sheriff with $2,000 in casino chips, seeking lucrative jail contracts.

Michael LeBlanc Sr. of Baton Rouge, Michael LeBlanc Jr. of Prairieville, Tawasky Ventroy of Opelousas and Jacque Jones of LaPlace have filed notices this month in federal court in Jackson saying they will change their previous not guilty pleas.

All are accused of scheming to win contracts to sell inmates phone service and commissary goods at a jail in Mississippi’s Kemper County. They’re also accused of paying former Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps $2,000 and promising him future bribes to secure his help in influencing sheriffs, especially those with regional jails overseen by the state. Epps was convicted of taking more than $1.4 million in bribes from private contractors and is serving a nearly 20-year federal prison sentence in Texas.

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U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate has set an Oct. 2 plea hearing in Jackson for the four men, who all remain free on bail.

The September indictments were a long-delayed continuation of the corruption investigation surrounding Epps. The conspiracy and bribery charges would carry sentences of up to 15 years in prison. Court papers don’t say to which charges the four will plead.

The elder LeBlanc started out in the prison industry as an architect, but branched into other services and once was an owner of a large private prison company. Federal prosecutors say the elder LeBlanc talked to Epps in October 2014, hoping to win contracts for phone and commissary services. By then, Epps was already cooperating with the FBI. Private vendors sell phone calls and goods to prisoners.

Epps had a history of pushing particular vendors, some of whom were bribing him, according to authorities. Prosecutors say Ventroy, a LeBlanc employee, delivered a $2,000 cash bribe to Epps later in October 2014.

Then, Michael LeBlanc Jr. met with Kemper County Sheriff James Moore. What they didn’t know, according to the indictment, is that Moore was working undercover for the FBI when he took $2,000 in casino chips from the younger LeBlanc in a Biloxi casino restroom in December 2014. The indictment alleges Moore was promised additional future bribes.

The elder LeBlanc designed at least five jails in the state. Development of two jails — in Alcorn and Chickasaw counties — was spearheaded by former state Sen. Irb Benjamin. The ex-lawmaker acknowledged bribing Epps to ensure the state would provide enough inmates to make jails financially profitable for the counties. Benjamin remains in federal prison in Arkansas.

LeBlanc previously was an owner of private prison company LCS Corrections Services, selling it to GEO Group for $307 million in 2015. Of the price, $298 million went to repay debt, GEO financial documents show.

LeBlanc and his deceased brother, Patrick, faced scrutiny in San Antonio in 2007 over donations when their company was providing commissary services. The Bexar County sheriff resigned and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges after accepting a free trip to Costa Rica from the LeBlancs. The sheriff’s campaign manager pleaded guilty to taking thousands of dollars in charitable donations and campaign contributions, diverting $32,000 to his personal use, according to published accounts. The LeBlancs were never charged in Texas.