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Attorneys want to move bid-rigging trial

Three men charged in connection with an alleged scheme to rig $130 million in state road contracts want the case moved from the state capital to Covington.

There has been too much negative publicity for road contractor Leonard Lawson, former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert and Lawson employee Brian Billings to get a fair trial in Frankfort, attorneys for the three men argue in court documents filed Tuesday.

A poll conducted by a University of Kentucky professor for the defendants also showed that more people in Frankfort thought Nighbert and Lawson were guilty of tampering with state road contracts than respondents in other cities.

The motion included 800 pages of newspaper articles and television broadcasts about the case.

"A significant portion of that prejudicial publicity has been caused by unlawful actions by the Government," the motion says.

Lawyers for the three men have already filed motions asking that the case against their clients be dismissed because the government left an unsealed affidavit by an FBI agent in the London federal courthouse. Details of that affidavit were printed in the news media before the three men were indicted. That affidavit outlined the grand jury investigation a full four weeks before the three were indicted in September.

Federal prosecutors have denied in court that they did anything wrong and said that defense attorneys are trying to cast doubt on key witnesses and the prosecution as a defense strategy.

The motion argues that there has been too much publicity of the investigation into improprieties of the Transportation Cabinet during former Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration in London, Lexington, Frankfort and Pikeville. But the Cincinnati media, which covers Covington, has had limited coverage of the case.

If the judge does not agree to transfer the trial to Covington, U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves should transfer it to another division outside of Frankfort, the motion argues.

Federal officials were not available for comment.

Lawson is accused of paying $20,000 in cash to James Rummage, a transportation employee, for internal cabinet estimates for more than $130 million in road contracts that Lawson's companies were going to bid on. Nighbert allegedly directed the employee to get the estimates for Lawson. Billings, charged with two counts of obstruction of justice, is accused of trying to steer Rummage to Lawson-paid lawyers during the early days of the investigation.

Defense attorneys paid for a telephone survey of 1,406 people in Frankfort, Lexington, London and Pikeville by a University of Kentucky professor. Of those respondents, more people in Frankfort had a negative opinion of Lawson and Nighbert than in the other cities, the survey found. For example, about 40 percent of people in Frankfort said they believed Nighbert was guilty of conspiring to rig road contracts, the survey found.