After Gov. Steve Beshear tapped Joe Prather to run the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet last year, Prather got a clear message from outgoing Secretary Bill Nighbert.
If you want to succeed as Transportation Cabinet secretary, ”You have to be friendly with Leonard Lawson,“ Nighbert told Prather late last year.
Later, Prather said, he had lunch with the prominent road contractor and his son Steve. ”During that time, (Leonard) asked me to "take care of Jim Rummage,' “ Prather told the Herald-Leader.
In the past, the wishes of Leonard Lawson have almost always been granted by politicians from both parties. But Prather rebuffed Lawson, who now finds himself at the center of a federal investigation into possible bid-rigging at the Transportation Cabinet.
According to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Clay Mason that was made public Friday, former highway engineer James Rummage alleges that he received $20,000 from Lawson in exchange for confidential cost estimates of road projects on at least eight occasions.
Larry Mackey, Lawson's attorney, has said details of the federal investigation should not have been made public and that people should keep an open mind.
”Leonard Lawson has a long track record of honest business dealings and a reputation for building award-winning roads,“ Mackey said. ”After that history, he does not deserve such unfair treatment.“
Governors and transportation secretaries have come and gone over the past 20 years, but Lawson, a self-made millionaire, has been the one constant. Some say he has ruled the roads and the pols for decades.
In the past decade, Lawson's various companies have done more than $860 million in road business with the state, according to state transportation records. And some of that money has made its way back into the campaign coffers of political candidates.
Since 2004, Lawson's family and the executives and employees of companies associated with him have given at least $473,988 to Kentucky's state and federal politicians, according to a Herald-Leader review of campaign-finance reports. A registered Democrat, he has supported Democrats and Republicans alike and donates to county judge-executives and U.S. senators.
His power has made him a polarizing figure.
To Lawson's foes, the news that he was being investigated came as no surprise. But his friends say that the 69-year-old is a frequent target of both the news media and federal and state investigators because of his vast wealth and fat Rolodex.
”He's almost completely bought the political process since 1981 — purchased it lock, stock and barrel,“ said Larry Forgy, a Republican who narrowly lost to Gov. Paul Patton in 1995, and one of Lawson's most outspoken critics.
”I think his career has represented the largest political scandal in the history of the commonwealth,“ Forgy said. ”He's like gonorrhea — if you're near him, you're going to catch it.“
But Patton, who was dogged by allegations that he and his friend of more than 25 years were too close during Patton's two terms, said he was shocked by the allegations against Lawson.
”We never had any hint that he would want to do anything improper or that he would expect me or anyone around me to do anything improper,“ Patton said.
A mountain empire
Lawson grew up in Beverly in Bell County, the graduate of a religious mission school. In 1971 he bought out his boss, who owned a Bowling Green road-building firm. His businesses have grown since then, morphing into the Mountain Companies, an umbrella for an assortment of companies.
In 2005, Lawson sold Mountain Enterprises, one of the largest asphalt companies in the state, to an Irish conglomerate for an undisclosed amount. But Lawson still lays blacktop in Central and Eastern Kentucky.
Lawson, his son Steve, or Lawson-related companies have interests in Bizzack, L-M Asphalt Partners, Central Rock, The Allen Company, Lexington Quarry and Gaddie-Shamrock, according to secretary of state records.
Lawson is a shy man who rarely makes public appearances. In a rare interview with the Herald-Leader in 2005, he admitted that he had clout in Frankfort but said his influence is exaggerated.
”You hear that I am supposed to be for or against a lot of stuff I don't give a damn about,“ Lawson said.
But Lawson has cared about more than blacktop. His family or foundation has given millions of dollars to create the Leonard Lawson Cancer Center in Pikeville and has also given money to the University of Kentucky, Pikeville College and Sayre School in Lexington.
Still, Lawson's road-building business has not been without problems and questions. In 1983, Mountain Enterprises pleaded guilty in federal court to felony bid-rigging and paid a $150,000 fine.
It was alleged that Mountain and other contractors met and divided up the paving contracts among themselves. (Lawson said in 2005 that it was a mistake — he now never meets with competitors without a lawyer present.)
In 2004, investigators in the Transportation Cabinet questioned why so many Lawson-related companies were granted change orders — an OK to charge the state additional money above the original bid price.
Bobby Russell, author of the report, questioned why $2 million in drainage blankets were added to a Harlan County road paved by a Lawson company when the original designs did not call for drainage. Russell was later fired, and the report was not released to the public for more than eight months.
Lawson, in the 2005 interview, said he has never asked his many political allies for specific favors.
”I never talk about a specific project,“ he said.
Sen. Ed Worley, D-Richmond, who describes himself as a friend of Lawson, said he's known Lawson to have a lifelong ”passion for politics,“ but not to the point that it taints his business practices.
”And in all the 25 years I've been around Leonard, I've never seen a hint of impropriety,“ Worley said.
The one politician Lawson hasn't backed is Beshear, according to campaign finance reports.
Beshear and Prather, in a news conference last week, pledged to stop the political influence of contractors in the cabinet.