Watchdog

Tape of Lawson played in bid-rigging trial

Knowing he was the target of an investigation into bid-rigging, road contractor Leonard Lawson told a state highway engineer in 2008 to stay silent and hire a lawyer whom Lawson recommended — or else "you're in bad shape," according to a tape of the conversation.

Jim Rummage, the engineer, is now the government's key witness against Lawson, 70, and former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert, 58, who are charged with rigging bids for projects worth $130 million in 2006 and 2007. Prosecutors say Rummage delivered confidential bid estimates to Lawson at Nighbert's direction and collected $20,000 in bribes from Lawson.

A jury in U.S. District Court in Lexington on Monday heard a tape of Lawson's phone conversation with Rummage on March 26, 2008.

Prosecutors want to show the jury that in addition to bribery to gain access to government material, Lawson conspired to obstruct justice by trying to silence Rummage.

Rummage said he might tell the authorities what he knew and, again, Lawson warned him not to.

"Look down the road, Jim. You've completely wiped your life away if you do," Lawson said. "Everybody goes to court, and you'll be splattered all over the world."

Asked about that comment in court Monday, Rummage testified, "I took it as a threat."

Rummage testified that in a previous conversation with Brian Billings, a Lawson employee, Billings provided him with the name of a local lawyer and made it clear the lawyer's bills would be paid if Rummage dropped his current attorney and switched.

Lawson picked up that theme in his conversation with Rummage. Lawson said Rummage's current attorney had ties to the FBI and, if he switched to the lawyer of Lawson's preference, then all of the defense attorneys could plan a strategy.

"You need to take that attorney that — you know, it's against the law for me to tell you what to do once this all has come up," Lawson said. Then he added, "If you meet with the lawyer you got, then everyone got a problem. And there ain't no problem the other way."

Unknown to Lawson at this point, Rummage was cooperating with the FBI and secretly recorded many conversations. He told Lawson that day that he was tempted to confess everything he knew to law enforcement in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

Lawson urged Rummage to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

"I ain't going to jail for anybody," Rummage told Lawson.

"This thing, there's nothing to it if you hire the right attorney," Lawson said. "If you want to have a good future of it, it's still there. But if you go this other route, you're in bad shape. And that wouldn't be a hard decision for me to make."

As cross-examination began, Larry Mackey, one of Lawson's attorneys, immediately began his attack on Rummage's credibility.

Rummage lied to the Transportation Cabinet's Office of the Inspector General in January 2008 when he was asked about his requests for bid estimates in 2006 and 2007, Mackey said. In his interview with the inspector general, Rummage said he retrieved the estimates at the request of Nighbert for budgeting purposes, but he never delivered them to a road contractor.

Rummage even lied to his wife, not telling her that he allegedly had $20,000 in bribe money hidden in their bedroom for months, Mackey said.

Rummage testified that he didn't want his wife to know he was involved in a bribery scheme and didn't tell her until he went to the FBI. Then he came clean all at once and resigned his post at the Transportation Cabinet, he said.

"I wanted to tell the truth. That's what I've done," Rummage said. "And I feel better that that's what I've done."

Later in his cross-examination, Mackey hinted at several possible alternatives to Rummage's story, but he did not seem to draw any conclusions.

Mackey noted that Rummage and another Transportation Cabinet engineer, Chuck Knowles, are Democrats, and they opposed adding extra asphalt to a project Lawson won on the Cumberland Parkway. That section of road runs through the districts of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and state Senate President David Williams, both of whom are Republicans, as is Nighbert, Mackey said. But he dropped that line of questioning without reaching a conclusion.

Mackey also noted that Rummage used his state computer to research whistle-blower laws, which could allow him to share in money recovered by the government if he exposed fraud.

Showing the jury a news release, Mackey said the U.S. Justice Department in 2007 reached an $8.2 million fraud settlement with a road contractor, Gohmann Asphalt and Construction, over work it had done in Kentucky and Indiana. The whistle blower in that case won $1.1 million for his work. But Mackey then dropped that line of questioning, too.

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