Attorneys for three men who are accused of tampering with bids for $130 million in state road contracts pledged Friday to fight the charges and said they have been unfairly treated by prosecutors and the news media.
Leonard Lawson, 69, of Lexington, who has been a mainstay in politics and paving for decades, and former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert, 57, who was transportation secretary during former Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that they tampered with the bidding process.
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Brian Billings, 37, of Stanton, a former Transportation Cabinet employee and current employee of Lawson, also pleaded not guilty to three obstruction of justice charges.
All three were released on their own recognizance. They must surrender their passports and cannot commit any crimes while awaiting trial.
During Friday's hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge James B. Todd set a Nov. 12 trial date for the three men. However, defense attorneys said Friday that they will probably file motions to push back the trial, which is expected to last one to two weeks.
U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves, who has been assigned the case, has another high-profile trial — the case of two Lexington-area lawyers accused of taking millions of dollars from their former clients in a diet-drug settlement — that is set to begin Nov. 17. It will be impossible for Reeves to try both cases in the same time frame.
Nighbert and Lawson have been charged with six different counts each, ranging from bribery to obstruction of justice. If convicted, Nighbert and Lawson could face decades in jail.
It is likely that defense attorneys will file motions in coming weeks asking that the charges against their clients be dismissed, in part because details of the grand jury investigation were reported by the media before the release of the indictments last week.
Defense lawyers also indicated Friday that they may seek a change of venue. The trial is currently scheduled to take place in Frankfort.
Howard Mann, a lawyer for Nighbert, said he expected many motions to be filed; "one of them will be a motion to dismiss the indictment."
Larry Mackey, Lawson's attorney, said Friday was the beginning of a long battle to clear Lawson's name.
Mackey said he plans to make Reeves aware that he has serious concerns that information from the grand jury investigation was made public when an affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent Clay Mason was filed as part of a search warrant in federal court in London. The affidavit was not sealed.
That leak has destroyed Lawson's credibility and presumption of innocence, "a result of 30 days of non-stop press," Mackey said.
Kyle Edelen, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, said it is the office's policy not to comment on ongoing cases.
According to the Sept. 3 indictment, Lawson is accused of paying former transportation employee James Rummage for inside information that would help him maximize his profits when one of Lawson's companies was the sole bidder for road contracts.
The indictment alleges that Lawson paid Rummage $20,000 in cash for the information. The indictment includes road work by Lawson companies in 2006 and 2007.
Nighbert allegedly directed Rummage to ask for internal cabinet cost estimates for road work on projects that Lawson wanted. Federal prosecutors allege that Lawson also paid Nighbert more than $67,000 through an employment contract with a Pikeville utility group that hired Nighbert after he left state government in December 2007.
Billings allegedly met with Rummage several times while Rummage was cooperating with federal investigators and tried to persuade him to talk to an attorney selected by Lawson.
Mann declined to answer questions about the Pikeville public utility and whether Lawson owned or had an interest in the company
Mann said he thought that Nighbert was still working as a consultant for the company.
Rummage has not been charged. An attorney for Rummage has said he is cooperating with investigators but does not have a plea deal or even a promise that he won't be prosecuted.
Defense lawyers Friday said Rummage was a liability for federal prosecutors, saying Rummage has told too many lies. According to the indictment, Rummage at first lied to federal prosecutors about why he asked for the confidential information, but after consulting a lawyer, agreed to work with investigators .
"He has told a multitude of different stories," Mann said of Rummage.
Kent Wicker, an attorney for Billings, said Rummage's credibility will most likely be questioned in court.
Wicker said Friday after the hearing that he had just received some of the government's evidence against his client but said he didn't know if there were videotapes of alleged conversations between Billings and Rummage. The 22-page indictment details several conversations between Rummage and Lawson and Billings and Rummage. It appears those conversations were taped.
The next hearing in the case will be Oct. 28 in Frankfort.
The case promises to be a pitched legal battle — with experienced attorneys on both sides of the courtroom.
The federal government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor, an experienced prosecutor who specializes in public corruption cases. In the past two years, Taylor has gotten convictions or pleas from at least 19 former county officials, school officials or their relatives on charges that include conspiracy, perjury and vote-buying in Knott, Bath and Johnson counties.
Mackey, Lawson's Indianapolis-based attorney, is a former federal prosecutor who gained national attention as one of the prosecutors in the Oklahoma City bombings case.
This won't be Taylor and Mackey's first legal battle. Mackey was the defense lawyer for Ross Harris, an Eastern Kentucky coal operator who laundered money through "straw contributors" for a judicial race in Eastern Kentucky. Harris was convicted and sentenced to house arrest but died before his sentence was completed.
Mackey will not lack for resources. Lawson, a self-made millionaire, will likely spare little on his legal defense.
Mann, of Corbin, has been Nighbert's criminal attorney before. Mann represented Nighbert during the investigation of improper hiring practices during Fletcher's administration. Nighbert was indicted twice, but those charges were dismissed after Fletcher issued a pardon.
Billings is represented by Wicker, who spent seven years as a federal prosecutor in the Western District of Kentucky, three of those as chief of the criminal division.
Wicker, who is in a law firm with former U.S. Attorney Steve Reed in Louisville, also has extensive experience prosecuting and defending political corruption cases.