FRANKFORT — About $226,000 in state money was spent in late 2006 improving remote one-lane roads in Washington County that lead to property owned by the brother of then-Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert.
A few months later, Nighbert and his brother, Edwin, formed a company and bought another nearby 95-acre parcel. The company, Double Buck LLC, was referenced in a recent FBI affidavit that laid out details of an alleged bid-rigging scheme in the Transportation Cabinet that involved Nighbert.
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The road improvements aren't the first upgrades that state agencies where Nighbert worked have tried to bring to the area.
A former Anderson County water official accuses Nighbert of trying to use his political influence in 2004 to bring water service to the remote region that straddles the line between Washington and Anderson counties. At the time, Nighbert was deputy local government commissioner in then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration.
Nighbert's attorney, Howard O. Mann of Corbin, declined to comment about the road and waterline improvements near the farm. ”I don't know anything about it,“ he said.
After more than 33 years with the South Anderson Water District, Alton Warford said, he left as its manager in July 2005 because his board would not back his decision not to extend waterlines to the property of Jim Wells, who eventually sold the nearby Double Buck farm to the Nighbert brothers.
Warford said in a May 7, 2004, letter to Nighbert that he disagreed with the decision of the fledgling Fletcher administration to hold up a $1 million project to provide 31.1 miles of waterlines to 261 households unless the Wells' property were added to the project.
The money had come from the preceding Democratic administration of Gov. Paul Patton.
”I do not agree with any political maneuver to postpone this project in order to allow one individual water service,“ Warford wrote in the letter obtained by the Herald-Leader.
He added: ”If your administration wants to pay for any individual customer to have service, do it yourself and not through the South Anderson Water District.“
He said he informed then-Anderson County Judge-Executive Anthony Stratton that he wanted to notify the public that Nighbert postponed the project.
Stratton, who is running for Anderson County clerk this year, said ”the gist of Mr. Warford's letter is true.“
”What's important is that the project did get off the ground after a year or two and I understand it did not include the Wells' property,“ Stratton said in an interview.
Warford said in a recent interview that he opposed extending waterlines to Wells' property because the district would have had to bore under the Bluegrass Parkway.
He said he did not know at the time that Nighbert's brother had property nearby.
”What Bill Nighbert did was not right,“ Warford said.
Didn't list ties to company
Nighbert also failed to list, on a required financial disclosure form with the state Executive Branch Ethics Commission, his ties to Double Buck LLC.
Mann has said it was an oversight on a form Nighbert completed on his final day in office last December. He quickly noted that information about Nighbert's association with Double Buck has been on public file with the secretary of state's office since February 2007.
Nighbert and his brother each own 50 percent of Double Buck. The company was organized Feb. 6, 2007, according to corporate records filed with the secretary of state's office.
The Double Buck farm adjoins a 152-acre site with a cabin at 1899 Sulphur Lick Road owned by Edwin and Sharon Nighbert and William and Victoria Childress since September 1990, said the Washington County PVA office. It is valued at $135,000.
Wells, who changed his political party registration from Democrat to Republican in February 2003, said Nighbert was ”just trying to help out.“
”This part of Anderson and Washington counties never got anything from Frankfort until he got in,“ he said.
Wells said he changed party registration at the urging of an unidentified friend. ”It's legal,“ he said.
Wells said he got water to his house last September from a district in Washington County.
Double Buck does not have running water, he said, ”and I have no idea if they want it.“
Roads "in terrible shape'
Although Bill Nighbert was a high-ranking official in the Transportation Cabinet at the time, Washington County officials say he played no role in the road upgrades near his brother's farm.
”They were done because those roads and bridge were in terrible shape,“ said Washington County Judge-Executive John Settles, a Democrat.
According to Settles, the road improvements included:
■ Resurfacing 2.77 miles of 14-foot-wide Tatham Springs Road in October 2006 for $78,876.
■ Resurfacing 1.4 miles of 12-foot-wide Sulphur Lick Road in August 2006 for $61,350.
■ Repairing a bridge on Sulphur Lick for $86,000.
In a Dec. 16, 2005, letter to Ginger Wills, then executive director of the Transportation Cabinet's Office of Rural and Secondary Roads, Settles said portions of Sulphur Lick Road ”that run along the creek and up a hill are in an extremely bad state of repair.“
”In many areas, the creek has cut into the edge of the road and needs to be moved away from the road to prevent further damage.“ Settles wrote in the letter, which the Herald-Leader obtained under the state's Open Records Law.
He said the bridge ”requires constant attention due to repair and replacing boards that are broken or simply fall into the stream.“
Settles said he saw Nighbert at a meeting after the road work was done ”and he commended me for it, but we never did this for him.“
Nighbert ”has treated Washington County fairly,“ Settles said. ”We're a highly Democratic county, more than 2-to-1 Democratic, but Nighbert always helped us when he could.“
At the time of Settles' letter to Wills, Nighbert was commissioner of the Transportation Cabinet's intergovernmental programs.
Since leaving the Transportation Cabinet, both Nighbert and Wills have worked for Senate President David Williams.
Nighbert worked as an adviser to Williams from from January to July for about $75,000 a year.
Wills, after receiving several promotions in the Transportation Cabinet, left her $105,000-a-year job as governmental relations commissioner on Dec. 14, just after Gov. Steve Beshear took office. She started working June 2 as an assistant in the Senate Republican leadership office for about $48,000 a year.
The FBI investigation of Nighbert and others was publicly revealed in an affidavit filed Aug. 8 in U.S. District Court in London by an FBI agent.
The affidavit accuses politically influential road contractor Leonard Lawson of paying $20,000 to former district highway engineer James Rummage in exchange for confidential bid information on state contracts.
The sworn statement said investigators are exploring whether Nighbert, as transportation secretary, facilitated the release of secret bid estimates to Lawson. The affidavit was used to secure a search warrant of Utility Management Group, a business that hired Nighbert as a consultant after he left the Transportation Cabinet. FBI agent Clay Mason speculated in the affidavit that Lawson held an ownership in Utility Management Group and was using the firm to funnel money to Nighbert.
Payments to Nighbert by UMG were made out to Two Bucks LLC, which Mann said should have been Double Buck LLC. The FBI affidavit does not include any information about Nighbert's property in Washington County.
No charges have been filed, and lawyers for Nighbert and Lawson deny their clients did anything wrong. Rummage reportedly is cooperating with investigators.