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Panel files against Nighbert

A state ethics panel is looking into whether former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert violated the state's ethics rules by failing to disclose his ownership interest in a company that might be key in a pending federal criminal case against him.

Nighbert did not disclose his ownership in the limited liability company Double Buck on his 2007 financial disclosure forms, which is required by state law. Ethics investigators learned of the company through an FBI investigation of alleged bid-tampering.

Nighbert, road contractor Leonard Lawson, and a Lawson employee were indicted in September on charges relating to the tampering of more than $130 million in state road contracts in 2006 and 2007.

Federal prosecutors say Lawson received internal, confidential road contract estimates on projects that his companies were going to bid on during Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration.

The state Executive Branch Ethics Commission issued the formal complaint against Nighbert at its Friday meeting. Its investigation began in Sept. 26, 2008, according to ethics documents.

Nighbert will have 20 days to respond to the commission's complaint. If found guilty of violating the ethics code, Nighbert could face a public reprimand or a fine up to $5,000.

An attorney for Nighbert was not immediately available for comment Friday.

The federal indictment in the bid-rigging case alleges that Nighbert directed transportation engineer James Rummage to obtain the internal estimates for Lawson.

Rummage, who worked with federal prosecutors during the investigation, said Lawson paid him $20,000 in cash for the estimates. Prosecutors think Lawson funneled money to Nighbert through Double Buck and a Pikeville utility company that hired Nighbert after he left state office in 2007.

One of the checks the utility company wrote for Nighbert was actually to Double Buck, according to an FBI affidavit in the case. Nighbert's lawyer has said that Nighbert's contract with the utility company for consulting services was legitimate.

Nighbert has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges. A trial has been set for April.

Double Buck also owns a farm in Washington County, where the state spent $226,000 improving roads near the property, the Herald-Leader reported in August.