LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - As a federal corruption trial began
Tuesday against a former Kentucky Cabinet secretary and an
influential road contractor, the prosecutor alleged their "cozy"
business relationship broke the law but the defense countered that
the two men are victims of overreaching investigators.
Former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert and contractor
Leonard Lawson stand accused in U.S. District Court in Lexington of
swaying some $130 million in state road construction projects to
Lawson's companies between 2006 and 2007. Assistant U.S. Attorney
Ken Taylor alleged in his opening statement that Nighbert delivered
to his friend insider information unavailable to competing bidders
in exchange for kickbacks, including money for a car and a "fake"
Lawson's attorney, Guthrie True, immediately launched a
credibility attack on key prosecution witness Jim Rummage, a former
state highway engineer prosecutors say was the middle man who
delivered internal engineering estimates to Lawson at Nighbert's
request. The prosecution says Rummage reluctantly accepted
thousands of dollars in bribes before turning in his former
True argued in opening statements that if there was any criminal
activity in the case, it was from Rummage - and he pointed out to
the jury that Rummage wasn't among the defendants standing trial.
He said Rummage drummed up false accusations, relying in part on a
cache of secret recordings that investigators ultimately took out
of context to implicate Lawson and Nighbert and keep himself out of
"He was in trouble and he had to get out of trouble, so he gave
them Leonard Lawson," True said.
But Taylor insisted Rummage was merely a pawn in a much larger
corruption scheme. At Nighbert's request, Rummage fetched the
engineering estimates and delivered them to Lawson, not suspecting
any illegal activity.
Rummage was a wreck, Taylor said, when he started getting rolls
of $5,000 in cash from Lawson and finally realized the possible
ramifications. That is when he went to federal investigators.
"He couldn't eat," Taylor said. "He couldn't sleep. He was
losing weight. He was torn up. He was certain this was going to
come out. He didn't want to be the one still out there when it
The prosecution argues Lawson wanted the internal engineering
estimate as a way of knowing how to maximize the amount his
companies could charge the government for road contracts without
going so high that the bids would be rejected. True said that makes
no sense, considering Lawson won about 100 contracts during the
period in question - some higher than the engineer's estimate,
others lower, and many for amounts far higher than the eight being
scrutinized at trial.
"The numbers don't lie," True said.
Discussion about whether jurors should believe Rummage dominated
the first morning of the trial. Even U.S. District Judge Karl
Forester, who is presiding, has expressed misgivings about his
expected testimony, saying at one point his credibility was
Acting Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock was the first
witness called Tuesday afternoon, and some big name ones could
follow, including Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and Senate
President David Williams, a Republican. Forester has set aside
three weeks to hear the case.
Hancock and Chuck Knowles, who has spent more than 30 years
working for the Transportation Cabinet, both testified about the
shroud of secrecy around engineer's estimates. Both said it would
be inappropriate for a cabinet secretary, or anybody outside the
estimating staff, to request them before the bids are opened.
While Hancock conceded that some preliminary estimates on road
projects may be available to contractors and communication between
the cabinet and contractors is essential, the final engineer's
estimate is "highly classified."
Both men also were asked about the culture at the Transportation
Cabinet, especially during changes for administration in Frankfort.
Knowles will retake the witness stand when the trial resumes
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)