During his tenure as transportation secretary, Bill Nighbert oversaw nearly $2 billion in road and bridge improvements — including a $7 million reconstruction of an I-75 interchange in Whitley County where Nighbert owns property.
The I-75 and Ky. 92 interchange was one of 10 projects selected as part of a pilot program designed to fast-track building projects, land and transportation records show. Nighbert did not disclose that a limited liability company he is a partner in owns the property — a gas station and Taco Bell — to the Transportation Cabinet or to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, which polices conflicts of interest in state government.
But Nighbert, through his lawyer, Howard Mann, said the I-75 and Ky. 92 project has been on the transportation cabinet's list of long-term projects for two decades. And the reconstruction of exit ramps at the interchange actually decreased traffic to property Nighbert owns with four other partners, Mann said.
This is not the first time there have been questions on whether Nighbert — currently under federal indictment on bid-rigging charges — used his influence as head of transportation to steer state projects to property that he owns. In 2006, more than $200,000 in state money was spent improving one-lane roads in Washington County that lead to a farm owned by Nighbert and his brother, the Herald-Leader reported on Aug 19.
County officials, however, said the improvements to the roads were needed and were not done to help Nighbert.
Nighbert, who was transportation secretary from 2005 to December 2007, was indicted by a federal grand jury on Sept. 3 on charges that he helped top road contractor Leonard Lawson get access to internal cabinet estimates that would help Lawson bid on about $130 million of road projects in 2006 and 2007. Nighbert, Lawson and a Lawson employee have all pleaded not guilty. Lawson was not involved in the I-75 and Ky. 92 reconstruction project.
According to documents the Herald-Leader received through an open records request, the I-75 and Ky. 92 project was bid in January 2006, while Nighbert was secretary. Transportation officials searched all records relating to the project and could not find any documents that indicated that Nighbert disclosed that he owned the land through a company called Sunshine Valley. The state did not take any of the Sunshine Valley property during the reconstruction, according to land and other records.
According to secretary of state records, Nighbert is one of five investors in Sunshine Valley. Nighbert listed Sunshine Valley as a corporation that he had an interest in on financial disclosure forms filed with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission from 2005 to 2007. However, officials are also required to report any property in which they have at least a $10,000 interest.
The property is most likely worth more than $10,000, but it's unclear whether Nighbert's ownership is more than $10,000. According to a lawsuit filed against Sunshine Valley by one of its creditors, Nighbert and his partners pledged the gas station, the Taco Bell and other property in Williamsburg for a $2.7 million loan.
The state legislature approved a maximum of 10 "design-build" projects during the 2006 general session. The design-build process allows transportation officials to bid the design, engineering and construction of a project at the same time, which would allow the project to be completed quickly.
According to transportation documents, the I-75 and Ky. 92 interchange project was the fourth design-build project picked.
Charles Wolfe, a spokesman for the Transportation Cabinet, said the I-75-Ky. 92 project was picked for the pilot program for a host of reasons: It had been on the highway "to do" list for some time, there was money available to finish the project in two years and it had minimal legal issues, such as moving utilities and acquiring land from adjacent landowners.
The cabinet, however, did not have any documents showing how design-build decisions were made.
Guthrie True, a lawyer who represents former Transportation Commissioner Marc Williams, who might have been privy to decisions on how the design-build projects were selected, said Williams has declined to talk about what happened at the Transportation Cabinet during his tenure there.
Nighbert, through Mann, said the project was chosen in part because there was new construction at that interchange — including a Wal-Mart and a new water park — that created more congestion.
"Again, the Ky. 92 project between McCreary County and Williamsburg had been in the highway plans for many years before Mr. Nighbert ever went to Frankfort," Mann said in a written statement in response to questions from the Herald-Leader.
Mann questioned whether the Sunshine Valley property benefited from the project.
"It is a questionable proposition whether the property benefited since none of the Sunshine Valley land was taken, there was a great decrease in traffic there for more than a year, and the stations wound up being leased by other persons," Mann said.
Regardless of how the interchange project came about, Williamsburg Mayor Roddy Harrison said the road improvements unlocked some of the gridlock in the southern Kentucky city
The bridge over I-75 at Exit 11 was a bottleneck, with traffic often backed up in both directions, Harrison said. It wasn't unusual for people to sit in traffic for 20 minutes or more at times.
"They were very much needed," Harrison said of the projects.
Staff writer Bill Estep contributed to this story.