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Personal ties add spice to inquiry

Frankfort is abuzz over the FBI's investigation into alleged road contract bid-rigging, not only because of the systemic problems it could expose but also because of the personal connections of those involved.

That web of friendships and rivalries became clear after details about the inquiry spilled out through an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in London.

For instance, few figures in Kentucky politics inspire such deep-seated love-him-or-hate-him reactions as Leonard Lawson, despite his low public profile. Lawson, an Eastern and Central Kentucky road builder whose campaign contributions are almost as far flung as his companies' asphalt, is at the center of the inquiry.

Investigators are following up on allegations by a former Transportation Cabinet engineer who has claimed he took $5,000 from Lawson on four occasions in exchange for confidential estimates on road projects that were up for bid.

Lawson's bad patch of publicity has been countered by powerful friends such as Democratic Sens. Ed Worley of Richmond and Ray Jones of Pikeville, who offered words of encouragement and urged the public not to rush to judgment.

Lawson has a little history with Gov. Steve Beshear, who boasted last week that his administration's ”full cooperation with this investigation from the beginning has been an important part of this process.“

But it's mostly a history of avoiding Beshear.

He has spurned Beshear's requests for campaign donations. Instead of backing Beshear, he contributed to Wallace Wilkinson in 1987's Democratic gubernatorial primary and to Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher during the 2007 primary season. Also, his wife gave $500 to Democratic House Speaker Jody Richards' primary run against Beshear last year.

The Lawsons didn't write any checks during last fall's race between Fletcher and Beshear.

Lawson also has a past with Gilbert Newman, Beshear's chief state highway district engineer, who has been quoted often regarding the Transportation Cabinet's role in the investigation in recent weeks.

Newman, according to his state personnel records, served as vice president and general manager of Lawson's Central Kentucky Asphalt company from December 1992 to Aug. 14, 1994.

His résumé says he left ”voluntarily.“

Newman, through a Transportation Cabinet spokesman, declined an interview about his relationship with Lawson and his reasons for leaving Central Kentucky Asphalt.

”That was 15 years ago. He said he didn't want to get into that,“ cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe said.

Others caught up in the investigation also are politically connected.

Bill Nighbert, the former Transportation Cabinet secretary who is alleged to have helped provide confidential estimates to Lawson, is a close ally of Republican Senate President David Williams, who put Nighbert on his staff to advise senators during last spring's General Assembly.

The FBI even interviewed Williams about Nighbert's other business ties, according to the affidavit. Investigators asked Williams during a recent interview about what he knew of Greg May, whose company Utility Management Group hired Nighbert as a consultant.

According to the affidavit, investigators are looking into whether Lawson owns part of May's firm and whether he is using the company to funnel payments to Nighbert.

Williams told agents he met May once, but told the Herald-Leader he didn't talk with him long because he considered May to be a ”Democratic operative.“

May has consistently shied away from the press over the years. And he has declined to speak about being mentioned in the affidavit or his connections to Lawson or Nighbert.

But his political ties are far and wide. A review of his $37,150 in state campaign donations shows he has mostly supported Democrats, ranging from state Rep. Greg Stumbo and U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler's 2003 gubernatorial run to a host of local officials in Eastern Kentucky. But he's also crossed party lines to back Republicans, such as Fletcher, Secretary of State Trey Grayson and Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer.

With all the histories and the ties — both political and personal — on all sides, Williams said he hopes agendas are kept out of the investigation. So far, he said, he's not had reason to be optimistic, especially when the affidavit became public before any charges were filed.

”I consider the way this entire thing has been handled to be highly unusual,“ he said.