Franklin County

Bid-rigging jury hears tapes, key testimony

Jim Rummage, the government's key witness in the Transportation Cabinet bid-rigging trial, told jurors Friday that he was following orders when he allegedly leaked confidential bid estimates to road contractor Leonard Lawson.

Rummage testified that Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert ordered him in 2006 to start bringing confidential bid estimates to Lawson for projects that Lawson later bid on and won.

On one occasion, according to Rummage, Nighbert handed him an estimate and said, "Take that to our friend in Lexington."

"He identified Leonard Lawson," Rummage added.

During the next year, Rummage testified, Lawson slipped a total of $20,000 in cash — $100 bills rolled in rubber bands — into his pocket while he delivered bid estimates that would reveal what the cabinet was willing to pay for a project. This was understood to be bribes, Rummage said.

Rummage, who at the time was deputy state highway engineer, is the chief witness against Lawson, 70, and Nighbert, 58. The men are standing trial in U.S. District Court in Lexington on charges related to rigging bids for $130 million in state road projects.

Lawson and Nighbert have pleaded not guilty.

On Friday, the jury heard the beginning of Rummage's testimony, which promises to be lengthy, and most of the many recordings that Rummage secretly made of his conversations with Nighbert, Lawson and Brian Billings, a Lawson employee.

Acting at first on his own and later guided by the FBI, Rummage said, he tried to get the defendants to incriminate themselves. However, they were guarded in their comments, Rummage said, and Lawson acted as if he was recorded at all times.

In one recorded conversation with Nighbert at cabinet headquarters in Frankfort, Rummage said he was worried about getting caught leaking bid estimates.

Nighbert reassured Rummage that he had nothing to worry about, at one point saying, "But the bottom line is, when hell freezes over, they'll never hear it from us."

On the tape, Nighbert did not directly confirm that he had told Rummage to give bid estimates to Lawson.

Rummage testified that Lawson was present during that conversation. However, Lawson is not heard on the recording, and his lawyers deny he was there.

On another tape, made as the FBI started asking questions, Lawson urged Rummage to get a lawyer and not worry about the cost, and he arranged for a lawyer to call Rummage that day. Lawson told Rummage that he needed to declare his innocence to authorities and admit nothing. If questioned, Nighbert would invoke his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself, Lawson said.

"If you can stand pat on this, you ain't gonna have no problem," Lawson said. "You'll walk through this thing as clean as a tooth."

Rummage told the jury Friday that he acted on Nighbert's orders when he went to the cabinet's Division of Construction Procurement, which he supervised, and requested bid estimates for projects that had not been awarded.

It is cabinet policy for the estimates to remain confidential until contractors' bids are opened, and even inside the cabinet, they usually are not shared, he said.

At first, Rummage said, Nighbert kept the bid estimates for himself. On the third request, however, Nighbert glanced at the estimate and told Rummage to deliver it to Lawson, which he did, Rummage said.

Within a day or so, Lawson called Rummage to complain that the estimate — for concrete replacement on Interstate 75 in Fayette County — didn't allow for all the material that Lawson thought it needed. Rummage said he ordered his staff to make the changes Lawson wanted and delivered the revised version to Lawson's home on Winchester Road in Lexington.

Lawson found this version satisfactory and later won the project contract, Rummage testified. It was during this visit to Lawson's home that the contractor first slipped money — $5,000 total — into his pocket, Rummage said. Lawson also tossed him some frozen fish he had brought back from Florida, he added.

By this point, Rummage testified, he realized he was involved in a crime.

But Rummage said he also realized that he was the only one seen requesting bid estimates, which put him in the hot seat. In fact, unknown to Rummage at the time, one of the cabinet employees providing him with the estimates was suspicious enough to note the requests in his personal calendar, which is now evidence at the trial.

"I felt that if I tried to turn this over to the authorities, then I would be the scapegoat here," Rummage said. "I felt like I had no place to turn."

Rummage retired as deputy state highway engineer in 2007 despite Nighbert and Lawson urging him to stay and a pay raise from Nighbert as incentive, Rummage said. He returned later that year to the cabinet's Lexington office as chief district engineer, a job he chose because he no longer would be in a position at cabinet headquarters to obtain bid estimates for Lawson, he said.

"Emotionally, I was tore up," Rummage said. "I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I could not see a good way out of it."

Rummage said he panicked in early 2008 when he was confronted about the bid estimates by the cabinet's Office of the Inspector General and then the FBI. As he feared, word had gotten out about his frequent visits to the Division of Construction Procurement.

At first, he lied to the authorities, saying he delivered the bid estimates to Nighbert for budgeting purposes but not to road contractors, he testified. In March 2008, he said, he decided to come clean, so he hired a lawyer, went to the FBI and agreed to cooperate as a witness.

As the inspector general and FBI circled him, Rummage said, Nighbert, Lawson and Billings began to call and visit him. Rummage said the men told him that he didn't do anything wrong, that he just got the bid estimates to help Nighbert with his budgeting and that he shouldn't deviate from that story.

Rummage said Lawson called him on his cell phone just minutes before Rummage was due for an interview with the inspector general. Nighbert had met with Rummage that morning to assure him that he did nothing wrong and should not admit to wrongdoing, Rummage said.

In a recording of Lawson's call, played in court Friday, Lawson said he had spoken to Gov. Steve Beshear on Rummage's behalf and urged the governor to treat Rummage better. Then Lawson asked Rummage about his forthcoming interview with the inspector general.

"We've covered everything that you've said," Lawson said. "You said what you said, and that's all you need to say."