Gov. Steve Beshear took the witness stand for 90 minutes Thursday in the bid-rigging trial of road contractor Leonard Lawson and former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert.
Beshear, who is not accused of wrongdoing, testified about a call he made to Lawson in February 2008 to assure the contractor that the new Beshear administration would be fair to his companies.
The governor said he had been hearing thirdhand reports that Lawson was unhappy.
"I finally picked up the phone and just called him," Beshear testified. "I said, 'We're gonna treat you fairly, we're gonna treat everyone fairly.'
"I think he was appreciative of that."
Under cross-examination by defense attorneys, Beshear acknowledged he has approached Lawson for campaign donations and road industry fund-raising throughout his political career, including his 2007 gubernatorial campaign. But there is no connection between road contracts and campaign donations, Beshear said.
During a 2007 visit to Lawson's Lexington home, Beshear said, he met with Lawson and his son Steve Lawson to ask for campaign money. Asked whether they had discussed whom Beshear would appoint to run the Transportation Cabinet if he won, Beshear said it was possible.
However, before and after the election, other road contractors also suggested people they favored, he said.
"These folks obviously have an interest in who is going to be transportation secretary, and that interest is not illegitimate," Beshear said.
It is unusual for a sitting governor to be called to testify in a criminal trial. State Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, also is expected to testify.
Leonard Lawson, 70, and Nighbert, 58, are on trial in U.S. District Court in Lexington on charges related to bribery and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors say that in 2006 and 2007 — during Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration — Nighbert leaked confidential bid estimates to Lawson for road projects worth $130 million.
Beshear defeated Fletcher in November 2007.
During his 2008 conversation with Lawson, Beshear said, the contractor mentioned a cabinet engineer named Jim Rummage and asked the governor to look out for him.
Rummage, now the government's key witness, has testified that Nighbert told him to take bid estimates to Lawson, and Lawson paid him $20,000 in cash as bribes. By the time Beshear and Lawson spoke in 2008, the FBI and the Transportation Cabinet's Office of the Inspector General were questioning Rummage about the bid estimates.
Beshear said Lawson told him, "'You know, this Jim Rummage, he's a good guy and he's being mistreated.' And I said, 'Well, we're not going to mistreat anybody, we're going to treat everybody fairly.'"
Defense attorneys asked Beshear about his campaign pledge to "clean up the mess in Frankfort," specifically the Transportation Cabinet. On the day that Lawson and Nighbert were indicted in September 2008, Beshear issued a statement declaring it "a day of hope" and criticizing the cabinet's "culture of cronyism and corruption."
In response to questions, Beshear, a Democrat, acknowledged that the Transportation Cabinet had been a source of scandals long before Fletcher, the only Republican governor in a generation, presided over it. The scandals are due to the large amount of money and jobs the cabinet controls, Beshear said.
Defense attorneys then noted some Transportation Cabinet controversies on Beshear's watch, involving political appointees who owned land near cabinet improvement projects. One of those appointees, state highway engineer Gilbert Newman, was ordered to resign, Beshear said.
"Can we rest assured as we sit here today, governor, that the Transportation Cabinet is now totally clean?" asked Larry Mackey, who represents Lawson.
"You can never rest assured that on a day-to-day basis any cabinet is totally clean," Beshear replied. But his administration acts on ethics problems when it learns of them, he said.
On Thursday morning, the jury heard from Beshear's first transportation secretary, Joe Prather, who served for nearly two years until his retirement last September.
Prather said he paid a courtesy call on the departing Nighbert shortly after the 2007 election. Nighbert advised him to be good to Lawson, Prather said.
"He recommended to me that I needed to stay very close to Mr. Lawson because Mr. Lawson had great influence politically and he had great influence in the cabinet," Prather testified. "He said there were as many people in the Transportation Cabinet who answered to Leonard Lawson as answered to the secretary."
"I didn't respond," Prather said.
About a week later, Prather said, he had lunch in Lexington with Leonard and Steve Lawson.
Prather said Leonard Lawson asked him to help the careers of three cabinet employees: Ellen Briscoe, wife of Democratic political consultant Danny Briscoe; an employee related by marriage to Steve Lawson, whose name Prather said he could not recall; and Rummage, now the key witness.
Lawson "indicated to me that Jim Rummage was a good man and Jim Rummage had been good for him to work with, and he hoped he could be promoted," Prather said. (Rummage was not promoted.)