Beshear officials cooperating in probe

ralessi@herald-leader.comAugust 12, 2008 

Gov. Steve Beshear said Monday that his administration has been cooperating with federal authorities investigating allegations of road contract bid-rigging and that investigators interviewed him ”in the last month.“

As far as he knows, the inquiry is limited to former Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration and specifically to one prominent contractor, Beshear said.

”I was elected to create a culture of integrity at the cabinet and throughout state government and we are making substantive progress toward that goal,“ Beshear said in a statement. ”Our full cooperation with this investigation from the beginning has been an important part of that process.“

His comments come after many details of the inquiry were revealed in an FBI affidavit that became public Saturday.

That sworn statement from FBI Special Agent Clay Mason — filed in U.S. District Court in London last week — accuses politically connected road builder Leonard Lawson of paying $20,000 to a state highway engineer in exchange for confidential bid information on state contracts.

No charges stemming from the investigation have been filed.

The affidavit was used to obtain search warrants for two Eastern Kentucky businesses that Mason wrote could contain information financially linking Fletcher's transportation secretary, Bill Nighbert, to Lawson.

Beshear said that when investigators met with him, they asked about Nighbert, who left the cabinet in December and worked this spring for Beshear's political rival, Senate President David Williams.

Nighbert's successor, Transportation Cabinet Secretary Joe Prather, according to the affidavit, told the FBI that Nighbert once said to him that ”to succeed at the job, you have to be friendly with Leonard Lawson.“

Beshear said the FBI asked about that.

”They asked me if I had any more information like Joe had, like any conversations with Nighbert or anything like that, which of course I didn't,“ Beshear said.

Lawson, who has been a prolific donor to campaigns in the past, didn't contribute to Beshear's successful gubernatorial campaign last year.

”I had conversations with Leonard Lawson urging him to be for us. I talked to other road contractors and everybody under the sun trying to make sure they supported us,“ he said.

Beshear said Lawson never made overtures about writing a campaign check in exchange for help with contracts.

But James Rummage, former deputy chief state highway engineer, told investigators that Lawson paid him $5,000 in cash on four occasions to provide him secret cost estimates for certain road projects, according to the affidavit.

Cabinet engineers' estimates must remain confidential until the project is bid, and the agency's general rule has been to reject offers that are more than 7 percent higher than the internal estimate.

The affidavit also quotes Rummage — who initially denied providing the estimates, before changing his story a week later — as saying that Nighbert directed him to provide estimates to Lawson.

Nighbert's attorney has called Rummage's accusations ”false and baseless.“

As Beshear touted his administration's cooperation with the FBI inquiry yesterday, others suggested politics played a role in the affidavit's release. In general, such documents remain sealed until charges are filed.

Williams, the Republican Senate president, who has clashed with the Democratic governor, said he considered the release to be politically motivated considering rampant rumors that a grand jury would issue indictments stemming from the investigation last week.

”The indictments didn't come, so they released the affidavit and let people know where to find this affidavit,“ he said. ”I think it's highly unprofessional the way they're proceeding with this.“

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor has declined to address similar criticism from Lawson and Nighbert's attorneys.

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