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2 charges dismissed in bid-rigging case

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed two counts of a federal bid-rigging indictment against a former state official and a highway builder.

U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves dismissed a charge of conspiracy to misapply property against former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert and Kentucky construction contractor Leonard Lawson and a charge of misapplication of property against Nighbert.

Reeves found that the evidence didn't support those particular counts.

Defense attorney Howard Mann said he was pleased that some of the charges were dismissed. The men still face charges of bribery and obstruction of justice.

Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Todd, handling a separate aspect of the case, warned that supervisors in the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet shouldn't tell their employees not to talk with investigators working for defense lawyers in the case.

The high-profile case involves allegations that Nighbert, Lawson and Lawson aide Brian Billings conspired to steer $130 million worth of construction contracts to Lawson's companies.

Defense attorney Kent Wicker complained during a hearing Tuesday in Lexington that two unnamed Transportation Cabinet employees had refused to be interviewed by investigators, saying their supervisors had advised them not to speak.

Todd did not issue a formal ruling. Instead, he told Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor to let the Transportation Cabinet know prospective witnesses may talk to investigators if they choose to. Todd said he is "very upset" by the interference claims.

"It leaves a foul taste in my mouth," the judge said.

Transportation Cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe said some employees were told not to talk with private investigators, but to report their inquiries to agency attorneys.

"The employees were later advised that they were free to talk with the attorneys if they so desired," Wolfe said. "The cabinet is confident that nothing improper was done."

Lawson, Nighbert and Billings were indicted Sept. 3 after a yearlong FBI investigation into the awarding of $130 million worth of state highway construction contracts.

Their trial is set for April 28 in Frankfort, though defense attorneys have asked that it be moved to Covington because of pretrial publicity.

Taylor said Tuesday that prosecutors will seek a superseding indictment to replace the one issued last year. The grand jury is expected to consider the case Wednesday.

The three men previously pleaded not guilty. They are tentatively scheduled for re-arraignment Thursday in Frankfort.

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