JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – Four Louisiana men have been indicted on charges that they tried to bribe a Mississippi sheriff with $2,000 in casino chips to give them lucrative jail contracts.
The September indictments, unsealed Thursday in Jackson, are a long-delayed continuation of the corruption investigation surrounding former Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps. He’s currently in a federal prison in Texas, serving a nearly 20-year sentence after he admitted taking more than $1.4 million in bribes from private contractors.
The indictment also alleges the men paid Epps $2,000 and promised him more in the future to secure his help in influencing sheriffs and to secure commissary contracts selling goods to inmates in regional jails overseen by the state.
Indicted on conspiracy and bribery charges are 70-year-old Michael LeBlanc Sr. of Baton Rouge, 40-year-old Michael LeBlanc Jr. of Prairieville, 59-year-old Tawasky Ventroy of Opelousas and 50-year-old Jacque Jones of LaPlace. The elder LeBlanc started in the prison world as an architect but branched out into other services and once was an owner of a large private prison company.
The four are scheduled to be arraigned Oct. 16 in Jackson. Each faces up to 15 years in prison. It wasn’t immediately clear who their lawyers are. Phone calls to LeBlanc businesses weren’t immediately returned Thursday.
Federal prosecutors say the elder LeBlanc talked to Epps in October 2014, in hopes of winning contracts for phone and commissary services. At the time, Epps was already cooperating with the FBI. Private vendors sell phone calls and goods to prisoners, often under contracts that provide legal payments to jail and prison operators.
Epps had a history of pushing particular vendors, some of whom were in turn paying him bribes. Prosecutors say Ventroy, a LeBlanc employee, brought Epps a $2,000 cash bribe 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 secretly working undercover for the FBI when he took $2,000 in casino chips from the younger LeBlanc in the restroom of the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Biloxi on Dec. 8, 2014. The indictment alleges Moore was also promised additional future bribes. U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst said in a press release Moore was never under investigation. Although the indictment only outlines bribes in 2014, Hurst said the LeBlancs paid bribes from 2012 to 2015.
The elder LeBlanc has long done jail and prison work in Mississippi. His MWL Architects 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 admitted bribing Epps to ensure the state would provide enough inmates to make jails financially profitable for the counties. Benjamin is in federal prison in Arkansas after pleading guilty to bribery. He admitted paying Epps between $180,000 and $225,000 to secure Epps’ support for regional jails as well as drug and alcohol programs his company ran at two inmate work centers.
Benjamin said Epps also threatened to withhold inmates from Chickasaw County unless officials signed a prison phone contract with vendor Sam Waggoner. Waggoner pleaded guilty in 2015 to bribing Epps and is serving five years. He’s currently at a prison hospital in Fort Worth, Texas.
Ron Welch, a lawyer who has monitored Mississippi jails, said in 2017 that he once met LeBlanc in Epps’ office.
“He just struck me as one of those hustlers, like Waggoner and them,” said Welch, adding that LeBlanc was the “most sophisticated” of vendors he ran across in Epps’ orbit.
LeBlanc previously was an owner of private prison company LCS Corrections Services, selling it to larger private prison operator GEO Group for $307 million in 2015. Of the price, $298 million went to repay debt, GEO financial documents show.
LeBlanc, his companies, relatives and associates have donated more than $200,000 to political candidates, mainly in Louisiana, according to records from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
LeBlanc and his deceased brother, Patrick, faced scrutiny in San Antonio in 2007 over donations to the Bexar County sheriff and the sheriff’s campaign manager when their company was providing commissary services to inmates. The sheriff resigned and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges over accepting a free trip to Costa Rica from LeBlanc and his brother, and not reporting the contribution. 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.