JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — Mississippi’s corrections commissioner suddenly resigned Wednesday in the face of an apparent federal investigation.
Christopher Epps had led the state prison system for 12 years. Gov Phil Bryant named Deputy Commissioner Richard McCarty as the interim leader of the state prison system until a permanent commissioner is selected.
Epps did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
House Corrections Committee Chairman Tommy Taylor, R-Boyle, said Epps is under investigation, but said he wasn’t allowed to discuss the details.
Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, said he received calls from Corrections Department employees who said authorities showed up at the agency’s Jackson headquarters Wednesday morning and began restricting the employees’ movements.
Simmons is a former prison employee and a member of the Senate Corrections Committee.
Epps’ legal troubles have apparently been mounting for months. Rankin County land records obtained by the Clarion-Ledger show that federal officials filed forfeiture proceedings in March against Epps’ assets, including a house in Flowood, a condominium in Pass Christian, a 2010 Mercedes Benz S550, a 2007 Mercedes Benz S65 and an unknown amount of money held in two brokerage accounts.
The land records refer to a federal court case filed March 12 seeking to seize the assets. Online federal court records show that the case remained under seal Wednesday.
Rankin County tax records value the 3,800-square-foot house at $310,000. Epps and his wife Catherlean bought the house in a gated Flowood subdivision in 2005.
Harrison County tax records value the unit in the Pass Marianne condominium at $237,601.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Jackson did not return a phone call seeking comment. State Auditor Stacey Pickering’s office declined to comment.
Epps, 53, had spent 32 years as a state employee, working his way through the ranks of the department until he was appointed commissioner by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in 2002. He was a deputy commissioner for community programs at the time.
Epps stayed on as commissioner through the administrations of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant, becoming the longest-serving corrections commissioner. He enjoyed warm relations with lawmakers, even though his department’s rising number of inmates strained the state budget at times.
“It was a shock to me,” Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Sampson Jackson, D-DeKalb, said Wednesday. “I thought a lot of him. I did.”
Epps’ departure comes as he’s serving as the president of the American Correctional Association and the Association of State Correctional Administrators. His resignation comes at a time when Mississippi’s prison system is under scrutiny because of lawsuits alleging abusive conditions at two prisons run by a private contractor.