FRANKFORT — People were surprised in March 2005 when Gov. Ernie Fletcher named former small-town mayor Bill Nighbert as his new transportation secretary.
Nighbert, then 54, had bounced the previous year among several minor posts under Fletcher. He offered no expertise in transportation or running a cabinet that spends billions of dollars and employs thousands of people. He never graduated from college.
"We didn't really know who he was. Seemed like an odd hire," said state Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, a member of the House Transportation Committee.
Nighbert himself later conceded in a deposition, "I didn't really want to come over there."
By the time he exited the $135,000-a-year job last December, after Fletcher's defeat at the polls, Nighbert left a trail of controversy that still smolders, as evidenced by his indictment Wednesday on allegations that he tampered with bids for road contractor Leonard Lawson in exchange for more than $67,000 in bribes. He faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
Nighbert's Transportation Cabinet promised state jobs for Republican Party loyalists and record-high spending for politically powerful road contractors. The GOP and contractors weighed in on key cabinet decisions, documents show.
In 2006, showcasing the marriage of politics and asphalt, Nighbert and Fletcher invited road contractors to a Governor's Mansion luncheon. There, they assured the contractors that Kentucky would spend more than $2 billion on road projects over the next two years — as it did, leaving the cupboard bare this year. Then they hit up the contractors for donations to Fletcher's re-election fund.
Nighbert was indicted twice in the investigation of state hiring practices during the Fletcher administration, which happened largely at his cabinet and contributed to Fletcher's downfall. The state has paid nearly $900,000 to settle lawsuits against Nighbert by cabinet employees who say he mistreated them. A sexual-harassment suit is pending.
Cabinet officials also accused Nighbert of covering up possible crimes.
One such complaint might have helped lead to Wednesday's indictments. Sam Beverage, a former state highway engineer, told prosecutors in a taped interview last year that road contracts were steered to Fletcher supporters in violation of the competitive bidding process — and he named Nighbert as a participant, said Franklin Commonwealth's Attorney Larry Cleveland.
The cabinet's inspector general said Nighbert blocked his investigation of Beverage's complaint. So Cleveland gave the taped interview to FBI Agent Clay Mason, who is assisting the federal grand jury that indicted Nighbert this week.
"That seemed to spark their interest," Cleveland said recently. "That was probably the first step down the road to where they are now."
Fresh scrutiny is now coming to Nighbert's outside business deals.
The cabinet spent about $226,000 two years ago to improve remote one-lane roads in Washington County that led to property owned by Nighbert's brother, Edwin. A few months later, Nighbert and his brother formed a company and bought another nearby parcel.
And a Williamsburg development company in which the Nighbert brothers are members — Sunshine Valley LLC — has faced liens and litigation related to alleged unpaid debts. A complaint filed this year by First State Financial of Middlesboro claims that Sunshine Valley, the Nighberts and their partners defaulted on a $2.7 million loan.
Nighbert — who declared in his 2007 state financial-disclosure report that he owed money to three banks — declined to be interviewed for this story on the advice of his defense attorney.
Among his supporters, few were eager to discuss Nighbert on the record, and those who did sometimes hedged their comments.
"I never saw him do anything wrong," said state Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, who employed Nighbert as an adviser during this year's legislative session — a time when Nighbert allegedly was taking Lawson's bribes. "If Bill Nighbert did anything wrong, the process will work and I will be disappointed," Williams said "Any time a friend of yours does something wrong or makes a bad decision, you're disappointed."
Charles William Nighbert grew up in Williamsburg, a town of about 5,100 people in Whitley County near the Tennessee line.
A large and confident kid, he played high school football and graduated in 1969. He spent five years attending different colleges without earning a degree. He went on to operate a cable television business and since has held interests in rental property, land development and convenience stores.
In the 1980s, Nighbert entered local government. He progressed from Whitley County treasurer in 1984 to Williamsburg city administrator in 1986 to mayor in 1993.
Friends said that being a small-town mayor was a good fit for Nighbert, a gregarious, back-slapping man who enjoys the wheeling and dealing of politics. He served a term as president of the Kentucky League of Cities.
Nighbert worked hard, said Paul Estes, former Williamsburg mayor and city council member. Estes recalled a time when Nighbert drove around town for several hours before dawn to prepare for a flood on the Cumberland River.
"He didn't hesitate to get out there doing anything, at any time, if he thought there was a need for it," Estes said.
Nighbert flattered and made himself useful to more powerful men. He named the city's $6 million entertainment center after U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, the political king of Southeast Kentucky. Rogers had nothing to do with the park, but naming it for him was thanks for Rogers' help with funding other local projects, such as a flood wall.
He volunteered to be David Williams' chauffeur when the Senate president ventured to Williamsburg at the far eastern — and more populous — end of his district.
Williamsburg saw a number of improvements during Nighbert's time, supporters said, including a new civic center and a new senior citizens center.
His tenure was not without controversy, however.
For example, he hired his son, Kenneth Bradley Nighbert, now 30, as a police officer — with disastrous results. The city was sued several times because of his son's alleged use of excessive force. In one suit decided against Kenneth Nighbert, damages and attorney's fees totaled $200,845. The city settled others confidentially. There was no record in Kenneth Nighbert's personnel file that he was disciplined for these incidents.
"In my experiences with that type of conduct from a police officer, most police officers would at least be reprimanded, and their conduct reviewed by city government," said Brenda Popplewell, a Somerset civil-rights lawyer involved in suits against Kenneth Nighbert. "But in those instances, their father was not the mayor," she added.
Later, Kenneth Nighbert crashed his police cruiser into a woman's car while he had cocaine and the painkiller oxycodone in his system. He quit the force and pleaded guilty to felony wanton endangerment. He's currently behind bars on a five-year drug sentence, after his arrest in a separate case while in possession of OxyContin pills, $32,000 in cash, a gun and a badge.
Asphalt, jobs and politics
In 2003, Kentucky elected Fletcher as its first Republican governor in a generation. Nighbert saw his chance to move up the ladder. He resigned as mayor and took a $75,000-a-year job as deputy director of the Governor's Office for Local Development, doling out money to cities and counties for projects.
Later, Nighbert told people that he was happiest at GOLD, chatting with local officials about what they wanted. Yet he swiftly started a fight. GOLD pulled back $14.6 million in grants that previous Gov. Paul Patton had approved for eight Democratic-led counties. Despite complaints from county officials, Nighbert said politics had nothing to do with it.
One year and several job transfers later — he didn't stay anywhere for long — Nighbert was Fletcher's surprising pick to run the Transportation Cabinet.
Documents released after the fact showed that Nighbert benefited from a power struggle. On one side were the original cabinet leaders Fletcher had chosen, who tried to avoid political favoritism in hiring. Challenging them were committed Republican activists around the governor who felt pressure to put more GOP supporters on the state payroll.
In internal e-mails, Nighbert criticized cautious cabinet leaders as "slow learners" who "should be taken out of the gene pool." He got the job. According to Dan Druen, then a cabinet manager, Nighbert helped draw up the infamous "hit list" of 32 suspected Democrats targeted for firing or demotion.
Nighbert has denied writing the hit list, but he admitted that he and Druen presented it to Fletcher's personnel adviser at the Capitol.
Nighbert was indicted in the scandal that followed. It's illegal in Kentucky to award merit-system jobs on the basis of politics. A mass pardon by Fletcher spared him from a trial.
Politics improperly influenced other cabinet decisions, some alleged.
Beverage, the highway engineer who talked to prosecutors, said Nighbert had sole discretion over a $42 million road fund "where the real politics is played," and alleged that Fletcher funded projects in exchange for senators' votes on his programs. The Courier-Journal of Louisville subsequently examined road spending and found that about 75 percent of $311 million from a 2005 bond issue went to Republican Senate districts.
"They were pretty partisan about the road money, and that bothered me," said Nelson, the Democratic House Transportation Committee member. "Mr. Nighbert was always friendly, and his top level of people were friendly, but they never did much to help us with anything."
Williamsburg, by comparison, did well. Roddy Harrison, Williamsburg's current mayor, credits Nighbert for much of the roadwork going on around town to eliminate congestion and cut back a dangerous cliff along U.S. 25.
"They were a godsend to us," Harrison said.
'They are our enemies'
Not everyone thought Nighbert was so friendly.
While he was deferential to elected officials, Nighbert had problems with some women below him at the cabinet. Druen, author of the political "hit list," told prosecutors that Nighbert named three women at the cabinet and said: "Make sure you put those bitches on there. ... They are our enemies." Nighbert has denied saying that.
Nighbert later was sued by two women at the cabinet. One, Sarah Missy McCray, said Nighbert threatened her for testifying to the grand jury in the state hiring investigation. The state settled with her for $500,000.
"He patted my leg and sat down and said, 'I have no resentment toward you,'" McCray said in a deposition. "A couple of seconds passed, and he leaned over and said, 'Well, if it were 20 years ago, I'd probably have come back there and socked you in the mouth.' And I said, 'Excuse me, why would you say that?' And he said, 'Just out of reaction.'"
In his deposition, Nighbert acknowledged the comments, but he said they were not meant as a threat. "I was trying to explain to her how — how I used to be and how, I guess, maturity and age makes you change and think about things differently," he said.
Another employee, Shaunee Lynch, said Nighbert made crude sexual comments to her and, one night in March 2007, made a pass at her when they were alone in his office. Her harassment suit is pending. "So as I got up to walk out and get the door, he grabbed my arm and proceeded to kiss me," Lynch said in a deposition. "I then gave him a very, very unpleasant look, and I may have said a few words, and I walked."
Nighbert has denied Lynch's allegations.
Crystal Murray Ducker, who served as Nighbert's chief of staff, recently told the Herald-Leader that she did not witness wrongdoing by her boss. "Based on what I observed," Ducker said, "Bill Nighbert served as cabinet secretary with the highest levels of honesty and integrity."
Although Nighbert is staying silent during his latest round of legal trouble, he told lawyers in a deposition last year that his faith in God sustained him during his previous prosecution.
"I went to church on a Sunday down home when a man walked up to me and said, 'You know, it's not what the newspapers write about you or — or people say about you. It's what God knows about you,'" Nighbert said. "And that's probably what got me through all of it," he said, "because every day was just a different trial."