FRANKFORT—The judge in a state bid-tampering case may have to recuse himself because of a potential conflict, delaying a trial that was set for the end of this month. U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves said Tuesday that he recently became aware that a former law partner, John Reed, represented Leonard Lawson, a road contractor, and his company Mountain Enterprises in a 1983 case. Reeves said under a federal rule, a judge must recuse himself in such a situation.
Lawson, former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert and Lawson employee Brian Billings were charged with attempting to buy internal Transportation Cabinet information about more than $130 million in state road contracts and then obstruct the investigation.
Reeves and Reed worked in different offices of the same law firm in the early 1980s, Reeves said Tuesday. Reeves said he did not think he did any work on the 1983 Mountain Enterprises case, but he had worked with Reed in the past.
In 1983, Lawson's Mountain Enterprises pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to felony charges of bid-rigging for agreeing to allocate state road projects among certain companies rather than competitively bid for them. The company paid a $150,000 fine.
Prosecutors have argued that a jury should hear about Mountain Enterprises' previous guilty plea. In a recent court filing regarding that plea, an affidavit from Reed was attached. That alerted Reeves to the fact that Reed had represented Mountain Enterprises.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors will have seven days to file briefs stating whether they believe Reeves should recuse himself. A new trial date will not be set until Reeves decides whether he will remain on the case.
"We are very hopeful that he will continue," said Kent Wicker, an attorney for Billings. Reeves did the right thing by bringing the matter to the attorneys' attention, Wicker said. Defense attorneys said Tuesday that it's not clear how long the trial would be delayed if a new judge had to be appointed.
A trial was set for June 23 for Lawson and Nighbert. Lawson is accused of paying a Transportation Cabinet employee for internal estimates that Lawson's companies were set to bid on during former Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration. Lawson allegedly also paid Nighbert for his help in delivering those estimates. Billings had been charged with obstruction of justice.
The September 2008 indictment alleges two conspiracies. The first was the alleged bribery of state employees to get the estimates. The second was the alleged obstruction of the investigation into the alleged bid tampering. Reeves had ordered that the two conspiracy cases be tried separately, a move federal prosecutors had opposed.
On Friday, a federal jury returned a superseding indictment that charged the three men under one conspiracy.
On Monday, defense attorneys filed a motion asking that the recent indictment be dismissed, saying the prosecution was trying to undo Reeve's earlier ruling severing the conspiracy trials. Defense attorneys called the prosecution's latest indictment "retaliatory action" by the government.
Prosecutors have not yet responded to the motion.
All three men pleaded not guilty to the new indictment Tuesday. The next hearing in the case is June 25.