Bid-rig key witness now faces ethics probe

Jim Rummage, a former state highway engineer who was the key witness in last month's bid-rigging trial, now faces a state ethics investigation.

Rummage testified in U.S. District Court in Lexington last month that during 2006 and 2007, he followed the instructions of then-Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert and took confidential bid estimates to road contractor Leonard Lawson for projects worth $130 million. Lawson paid him $20,000 cash in bribes, Rummage said.

Defense attorneys for Lawson and Nighbert poked holes in Rummage's account and called him a liar. A jury acquitted the two men on all charges of rigging bids for road contracts.

Regardless of the verdict, Rummage admitted to wrongdoing as a state employee, which merits an inquiry, said John Steffen, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission in Frankfort.

"The verdict wouldn't affect us in our proceedings," Steffen said Friday. "We are moving forward with it."

If the commission finds him guilty, Rummage could face civil penalties ranging from a public reprimand to a $5,000 fine per ethics violation.

Rummage, 50, of Morehead, retired in 2007 as a deputy state highway engineer at the Transportation Cabinet. He returned months later drawing more than $150,000 a year in salary and pension in the cabinet's Lexington district office. He retired again in 2008 when he agreed to help the FBI as a witness in its bid-rigging investigation.

Rummage testified at the trial that he still collects his $80,400-a-year state pension.

Marc Murphy, Rummage's attorney, said he understands the ethics commission has a duty to examine the allegations made at the trial.

"I advised Jim early on that I fully expected they would look at this once the trial was finished," Murphy said.

Steffen declined to say whether Nighbert or other past or present cabinet officials also could face penalties as part of the ethics commission's investigation.

Separately, Nighbert still faces a possible penalty from the ethics commission for failing to disclose his co-ownership of a company, Double Buck LLC, on his personal finance report.

Howard Mann, Nighbert's attorney, said nobody disputes that Nighbert erred by failing to disclose Double Buck. Mann said he plans to call the ethics commission in coming days and suggest a resolution, possibly involving payment of a small fine.

But Mann declined to comment on the ethics commission reviewing the bid-rigging allegations.

"Bill's been in the newspapers enough lately," Mann said. "He just got a judgment of acquittal, and frankly, I don't think that's been stressed enough."