October 25, 2020

Louisiana businessmen caught in Mississippi prison corruption case await sentencing

Four Louisiana men, including a father-son duo who built a multi-million dollar prison contracting business,  are awaiting sentencing to federal prison after admitting they tried to bribe their way into business at several regional Mississippi prisons.

Michael LeBlanc Sr. of Baton Rouge and his son Michael LeBlanc Jr. of Prairieville, Louisiana, along with Tawasky Ventroy of Opelousas, Louisiana, and Jacque Jones of LaPlace, Louisiana,  each pleaded guilty in a Jackson federal court in October to one count of conspiracy.

All four men say they paid former Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps a $2,000 bribe in 2014 and promised him future bribes to secure his help in influencing sheriffs, especially those with regional jails overseen by the state, to let them sell phone service and commissary goods to inmates. They also admit to giving Kemper County Sheriff James Moore $2,000 in casino chips in an unsuccessful attempt to bribe him.

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.

The elder LeBlanc designed at least five jails in Mississippi. Development of 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 the jails 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.

U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate set Feb. 10 sentencing hearings for the men. Each faces up to five years in prison, but will likely be sentenced to less.

 

Evidence presented in court showed that the elder LeBlanc, now 71, met with a confidential informant in October 2014 about influencing Epps and was told “Epps would have his hand out.”

Epps had a history of pushing particular vendors, some of whom were bribing him. Prosecutors say Ventroy, a LeBlanc partner in American Phone Systems, delivered a $2,000 cash bribe to Epps later in October 2014 in Epps’ Jackson office.

About the same time, Michael LeBlanc Jr. called Kemper County Sheriff James Moore, seeking phone and commissary contracts. But LeBlanc didn’t know Moore was acting as an undercover informant for the FBI and was recording the phone call. On Nov. 19, Jones met with Moore and discussed bribing the sheriff for a contract. Evidence states Michael LeBlanc Jr. used $2,000 in cash to buy casino chips during a December conference at a Biloxi casino and gave them to Jackson to give to Moore in a restroom. Jackson also promised Moore another $1,000 once contracts were signed. Jackson admitted the casino chip bribe to the FBI in January 2015, although the four defendants weren’t indicted until October 2018.

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 charitable donations and campaign contributions, diverting $32,000 to his personal use, according to published accounts. The LeBlancs were never charged in Texas.