LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Three men charged in a federal bid-rigging
case in Kentucky pleaded not guilty on Friday in a court appearance.
Former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert, construction contractor Leonard Lawson, and Lawson aide Brian Russell Billings
entered the pleas at the federal courthouse in Lexington.
They were charged last week with conspiracy, misapplication of
property and obstruction of justice after a yearlong FBI probe into the awarding of state highway construction contracts.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Todd set their trial date for Nov. 12 in Frankfort. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor said he expects the trial to last one to two weeks.
Nighbert's attorney, Howard Mann, said his client "is innocent." Lawson's attorney, Larry Mackey, said evidence will show his client committed no crime and should never have been charged. And Billings' attorney, Kent Wicker, said his client "vigorously denies the charges."
A sworn statement by FBI Agent T. Clay Mason last month provided
the first glimpse into the case, which centers on allegations that
Nighbert and Lawson improperly handled confidential cost estimates
on highway construction projects in 2006 and 2007.
Mason alleged in the statement that Lawson paid a state engineer, James Rummage, $20,000 for the confidential estimates.
Rummage had worked for the Transportation Cabinet since 1984. He
resigned March 31 after agreeing to cooperate with FBI agents. It is not clear whether he will face charges.
Prosecutors also allege in the indictment that Lawson funneled to Nighbert more than $67,000 disguised as payment for a consulting contract. They also allege that during the investigation, Nighbert, Lawson and Billings obstructed justice by trying to persuade Rummage not to cooperate with authorities and suggesting what he should tell the grand jury.
Defense attorneys on Friday said they will likely file motions asking U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves, who will preside over the case, to move the trial out of Frankfort. They cited pretrial publicity in central Kentucky that may have prejudiced potential jurors.
"We have been the victim of some very serious pretrial prejudicial publicity, and we want the judge to be aware of that," Mackey said.
Mann said the attorneys also are likely to ask Reeves to reschedule the trial to allow more time to prepare their defense.
Todd allowed all three men to remain free pending the outcome of
the trial. But he also ordered them to surrender their passports.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)