U.S. District Judge Karl Forester, who is overseeing the bid-rigging case against road contractor Leonard Lawson, is the father-in-law of a lobbyist for the main industry group through which Lawson's companies have flexed political muscle over the decades.
Forester's son-in-law is Frankfort lobbyist Sean Cutter, who was registered to lobby for the Kentucky Association of Highway Contractors as of Friday and was paid by the group as recently as this year's legislative session, according to state records.
Lawson long has been active in KAHC. His son, Steve Lawson, an executive in his companies, has served as a KAHC officer and sat on the board of directors in recent years.
Forester is the fourth judge to be assigned the Lawson prosecution, following three other judges in the Eastern District of Kentucky who had to recuse themselves because of various conflicts of interest.
On Friday, Forester said he was surprised by the link between his family and Lawson's industry group. The judge said he checked with his son-in-law before taking the case to be sure that he was not lobbying for Lawson at the statehouse.
"I specifically asked him about that, and he said he was not," Forester said.
Cutter did not immediately return a call to his office Friday. Nor did KAHC executive director Charles Lovorn.
Lawson's attorney, Larry Mackey of Indianapolis, said he was unaware of Forester's family ties, but he has worked with the KAHC and Lovorn as he prepared for the trial, tentatively set for early November. He declined to say whether Lovorn would be called as a defense witness.
"Part of my education about the road industry in Kentucky involved talking at length with the association's staff, including Mr. Lovorn," Mackey said.
Asked whether Friday's disclosure could present a problem, Mackey said, "I don't know. I'll need to evaluate it."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor, the lead prosecutor on the case, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Lawson is charged with conspiring with his employee Brian Billings and former state Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert to share internal state estimates of road projects in exchange for money, and then covering up the conspiracy. All three have pleaded not guilty.