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"New element' in roads probe

FRANKFORT — Transportation Secretary Joe Prather confirmed Thursday that ”a new element“ has developed in an investigation of former Secretary Bill Nighbert and others by the cabinet's inspector general.

He declined to release specifics of the investigation but said it is in conjunction with the FBI, which suspects Nighbert of playing a role in an alleged bid-rigging scheme. He did not elaborate on the investigation's ”new element.“

An FBI affidavit filed last Friday in U.S. District Court in London said a federal investigation into alleged bid-rigging involving Nighbert, former highway district engineer James Rummage and politically influential road contractor Leonard Lawson has been ongoing for more than a year.

No charges have been filed in the case, and all three men have denied any wrongdoing.

The Lexington Herald-Leader first reported the inspector general's investigation in its Thursday editions.

Prather, speaking to reporters after a news conference on highway safety, said the inspector general's investigation of Nighbert — who led the cabinet from March 2005 to Dec. 10, 2007 — and others is ”ongoing.“

Asked if he has any concerns that the cabinet's investigators include Mike Duncan, who was fired by Nighbert in 2005, Prather said, ”Mike Duncan is a professional, as is David Ray,“ the office's executive director.

”They have my absolute confidence. And if I ever thought that a different decision needed to be made on that, then I would act very swiftly,“ he said. ”But I have no reason to think that Mike Duncan is not objective and is not a true professional.“

Prather also praised Ryan Griffith, who prepares confidential cost estimates of road projects for the cabinet.

He said Griffith informed the appropriate supervisor about requests Rummage had made for the confidential figures.

”He's a stand-up young man,“ Prather said of Griffith.

Prather, whom Gov. Steve Beshear appointed late last year, said he hopes that no improprieties now exist in the cabinet. ”But I can tell you that if we determine there is wrongdoing on the part of any present employee of the cabinet, I would think dismissal would be in order.“

He said his goal is to make the cabinet ”one where all the decisions are made from within the cabinet without undue influences from outside influences.“