Prosecutors and defense attorneys made their closing statements to the jury Thursday in the bid-rigging trial of road contractor Leonard Lawson and former state Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert.
The jury, in U.S. District Court in Lexington, deliberated for three hours before court recessed. Deliberations will resume Friday.
The jury twice sent questions to Judge Karl Forester, asking to review transcripts of witness testimony and a video of key government witness Jim Rummage meeting in March 2008 with Brian Billings, a Lawson employee.
Rummage, a former Transportation Cabinet engineer, has testified that Lawson paid him $20,000 in bribes for confidential bid estimates on road projects worth $130 million, and that Nighbert ordered him to comply.
In the March 2008 video, secretly recorded after the FBI began investigating the case, Billings was shown typing text messages on his cell phone for Rummage to read while making small talk about road work. He didn't send them.
Rummage testified that Billings typed the messages on Lawson's behalf. In the texts, Billings told Rummage not to speak out loud, and then urged him to hire a defense lawyer preferred by Lawson, with the understanding that Lawson would pay the fees, Rummage testified.
In the video, when Rummage started to read the texts about lawyers out loud, Billings frowned and quickly shook his head.
The jury also asked Forester for the definition of when grand jury proceedings begin — if it's when FBI agents start questioning people, when subpoenas are issued or when the grand jury meets.
One of the charges that Lawson and Nighbert face is attempt to influence or impede a grand jury proceeding. The prosecutors and defense lawyers told Forester they need to research the question and return Friday with an answer.
In his closing statement Thursday morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor told the jury that this is their chance to help stop public corruption.
Taylor reminded jurors of a taped phone call in March 2008 in which Lawson urged Rummage not to cooperate with law-enforcement officials investigating the case. "I'll go to court and beat it," the road contractor said in the taped call.
"Don't let Leonard Lawson beat it," Taylor said. "Don't be Leonard Lawson's jury. Be the people's jury."
Rummage has no logical reason to lie about taking Lawson's bribes, Taylor told the jury. Since Rummage went to the FBI and agreed to be a cooperating witness in March 2008, Taylor said, he has lost his job and engineer's license, he has spent tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers, and his reputation has been ruined.
Taylor said that the taped calls between Rummage and Lawson clearly show Lawson trying to conceal a crime and stop Rummage from sharing what he knew with the FBI and the grand jury.
Defense attorneys countered that Rummage is an admitted liar who originally denied any role in leaking bid estimates in early 2008 and that he might hope to get rich with a whistle-blower lawsuit.
"The prosecution in this case beat itself when it lashed its wagon to Jim Rummage, of all people," said Larry Mackey, representing Lawson. On a video display terminal for each juror during Mackey's closing statement was an outline titled "You can't trust Jim Rummage, you can't trust the government."
For all of the secret recordings that Rummage made in this case, none capture Nighbert telling him to get bid estimates or Lawson collecting estimates or paying bribes, Mackey said.
"This is a man who has a trigger-finger for recording, but the recordings that would matter the most don't end up in this courtroom," Mackey said.
Mackey repeated alternative theories he had offered in the trial. In one, other road contractors with greater motivation to cheat bribed Rummage instead. In another, vengeful Democratic state leaders and cabinet engineers who resent road contractors worked with biased law-enforcement agents to hurt Lawson and Nighbert.
"Leonard Lawson was caught in the middle of a political shoot-out," Mackey said.
In his closing statement for Nighbert, attorney Howard Mann said the bulk of the government's evidence is against Lawson, not his client. There is no evidence that Nighbert spoke to Rummage after January 2008, which is before the cabinet's Office of the Inspector General handed the case to the FBI, giving it federal jurisdiction, Mann said.
Also, it makes no sense that Nighbert, a Republican political appointee, would pick Rummage, a Democratic employee he barely knew, to enter into a criminal scheme that could send them both to prison, Mann told the jury. Nighbert wouldn't even need Rummage, because as secretary of transportation, he had the authority to view bid estimates himself, Mann said.