Kentucky

Agent: Nighbert served in two roles

After Gov. Ernie Fletcher lost re-election in 2007, state Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert needed a new job. He found two of them.

On Jan. 2, 2008, Senate President David Williams put Nighbert — a close friend — on the legislative payroll for $70,000 a year as his transportation consultant, advising senators on the state's six-year highway plan.

The day before, Nighbert started work as a consultant for a company partly owned by major road contractor Leonard Lawson, whose firm agreed to give Nighbert a $125,000-a-year salary, a $34,500 Toyota Avalon and medical insurance for him and his wife, according to court testimony Friday.

As Nighbert discussed funding for potential road projects with senators behind closed doors, he used his personal cell phone to call Lawson at the contractor's Florida home throughout the 2008 General Assembly, often many times throughout the day and evening, according to phone records.

Details of Nighbert's dual roles were revealed in U.S. District Court in Lexington.

Nighbert and Lawson are scheduled to be tried there in November on charges of conspiracy to rig $130 million in road projects during the administration of Fletcher, a Republican. Nighbert allegedly leaked confidential engineers' estimates to Lawson before Lawson submitted bids.

Nighbert is not charged with actions related to his work in the Senate.

Williams, R-Burkesville, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, said he had no idea that Nighbert was working for Utility Management Group while on the state Senate's payroll, nor that Lawson owned part of the company.

If the FBI's allegations are true, Williams said "I absolutely will be disappointed."

Williams said Nighbert's job was to review the state's six-year road plan, mostly to analyze which projects had and hadn't been completed. He said Nighbert was not in a policy-making position.

In a hearing Friday to determine what evidence can be used at trial, FBI Agent Clay Mason shed new light on the relationship between Nighbert and Lawson.

Nighbert lost his Transportation Cabinet post once voters ejected Fletcher from the Governor's Mansion. Within weeks, records show, Nighbert was hammering out a consulting deal with UMG, a Corbin-based firm that manages water utilities in Pike County.

Internal documents show that Lawson owns about 20 percent of UMG through another company, UMG Investors, which keeps his name off public records, Mason testified.

Making the deal more opaque, Nighbert instructed UMG to direct his monthly $10,417 checks to a non-existent company called "Two Bucks," Mason said. Nighbert signed and deposited those checks into his own bank account.

In interviews with the FBI, UMG executives Archie Marr and Robert Combs "hemmed and hawed" about Nighbert's job duties and couldn't show any of his consulting work product, such as letters or reports, Mason said. UMG apparently stopped paying Nighbert after March 2008, around the time the legislature adjourned and he left the Senate.

On Thursday, the government's key witness — Jim Rummage, former deputy state highway engineer — testified that in 2006 and 2007, he retrieved confidential estimates for road projects at Nighbert's direction and gave them to Lawson, who provided him with $20,000 in bribes.

Testifying Friday, Mason displayed phone records that showed Rummage, Nighbert and Lawson talking, sometimes more than half a dozen times, on key dates, such as when Rummage allegedly delivered an estimate or was summoned by the Transportation Cabinet's inspector general to explain why he kept getting the estimates.

In their cross-examination of Rummage on Friday, defense lawyers suggested that Rummage is part of an effort by Frankfort Democrats to get revenge on Nighbert, a Republican, for his role in the Fletcher administration's state hiring scandal.

In that scandal, Nighbert, Fletcher and other top officials were indicted for allegedly pushing out state merit workers who were Democrats in order to put more Republicans on the state payroll. Rummage was on a "hit list" of Democrats targeted for firing or demotion. Fletcher pardoned Nighbert and the rest of his administration before trial.

However, Mason said Friday that the bid-rigging case has nothing to do with the political scandal. The bid-rigging case actually began after Christmas 2007, when Transportation Cabinet official Chuck Knowles heard that Rummage had been repeatedly requesting confidential estimates. Knowles reported it to his bosses, who asked the Cabinet's inspector general to investigate. Soon, the FBI was called.

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