FRANKFORT — Three men accused of tampering with $139 million worth of state road contracts and then trying to cover up the conspiracy will go to trial Jan. 11, a federal judge ruled Monday.
U.S. District Judge Karl Forester set the trial date at a hearing Monday in Lexington federal court after three days of testimony on what evidence, including recorded phone conversations by a key witness in the case, should be heard by a jury. A decision on what evidence will be admissible probably won't be delivered for several weeks.
Road contractor Leonard Lawson, former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert and Lawson employee Brian Billings have been charged in the case. Their attorneys spent much of Monday trying to poke holes in the government's case against the men.
The government's key witness is former transportation employee Jim Rummage, who has testified that Lawson paid him to obtain internal cabinet estimates for road contracts that Lawson-related companies were set to bid on.
Rummage, who initially lied to investigators about his role in the scheme, later cooperated and made several recordings of conversations involving himself, Lawson and Billings.
The government alleges that Nighbert was paid by Lawson for the internal information through a contract with Utility Management Group, a Pike County company partly owned by Lawson, according to court testimony.
The company could not provide documents to federal investigators showing what Nighbert did for the company, federal investigators have said.
The government says Nighbert was given a car and was paid by UMG for consulting work during the first three months of 2008, when he also was a legislative aide for Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville. Nighbert served as an aide to Senate leaders on transportation-related issues.
But Howard Mann, a defense lawyer for Nighbert, pointed out Monday that Nighbert never cashed three $10,000 checks from UMG and later returned the car.
Howard also said that Nighbert was qualified to serve as a consultant to UMG — which wanted to expand its business — because he is a former mayor and former president of the Kentucky League of Cities. Nighbert had many contacts with city and county leaders, Mann said.
The government also has used an analysis of phone conversations among Nighbert, Lawson, Billings and Rummage from 2006 to 2008 to show that there was frequent contact among the four men when Rummage obtained the internal cabinet estimates and during the investigation of the case.
Defense lawyers questioned Monday whether there were other reasons for the frequent phone calls — including talking about other road contracts that Lawson-related companies had with the Transportation Cabinet. In 2006, the cabinet let more than $1 billion in road contracts, many of which went to Lawson-related companies, defense lawyers said.
Guthrie True, an attorney for Lawson, also pointed out that Rummage acquired internal cabinet estimates for road contracts that went to companies not affiliated with Lawson. Why didn't the government investigate those companies, he asked?
FBI Special Agent Clay Mason testified Monday that Rummage had said he was told by Nighbert to get road estimates on other projects as "camouflage."
Mann also questioned what role Mike Duncan, an investigator with the cabinet's Office of Inspector General, had in the bid-rigging investigation.
Nighbert had fired Duncan, an action that was central to an investigation of hiring practices under former Gov. Ernie Fletcher. Duncan later sued Nighbert and others in federal court, but the case was dismissed.
Less than a month after the federal case was dismissed, Duncan, who was later reinstated in the OIG office, began investigating the leaking of engineer estimates, Mann said.
Duncan clearly had animosity toward Nighbert at the time, Mann said.
Although the investigation originated with the Office of Inspector General, Mason noted that it was later referred to the FBI.
"I did not pay attention to the merit investigation," Mason said. "This investigation stands on its own two legs."