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Jury begins deliberating in Ky. bid-rigging case

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - A jury began deliberations Thursday
afternoon in the federal corruption trial of a former Kentucky
Cabinet official and a contractor accused of scheming to influence
millions of dollars worth of state highway projects.

Attorneys for former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert and
prominent road contractor Leonard Lawson gave separate closing
arguments Thursday before the panel got the case around 2 p.m.

Their approach was largely the same as they continued an attack
on the credibility of a government informer whose testimony is key
to the prosecution's case for a bribery and obstruction of justice
conviction.

That witness, engineer Jim Rummage, said he delivered to Lawson
- at Nighbert's request - various internal cost estimates developed
by the transportation department to help judge bids on state
highway projects. Rummage said Lawson gave him handfuls of cash
totaling $20,000.

Acquiring the bids was critical for Lawson, the government
maintains, because it helped him know how to maximize the amount of
money he could bid and still win the contracts.

But as they have done throughout the three-week trial, defense
attorneys insisted the jury can't trust Rummage and, therefore,
can't find the pair guilty.

"He lied to his lawyer," said Lawson's attorney, Larry Mackey.
"He lied to his wife. He's willing to lie, and he's lying now. The
prosecution beat itself when it latched its wagon to Jim Rummage,
of all people."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor spent part of his closing
argument defending Rummage but told the jury the real evidence
wasn't Rummage's words but rather, Lawson's. On numerous occasions, Rummage secretly recorded conversations he had with the road contractor, and many of those tapes were played in court.

The defense dismissed those too, arguing Taylor and other
federal investigators coached Rummage to try to entrap Lawson into
confessing to a crime he didn't commit.

Nighbert's attorney, Howard Mann, said the government was
treating Rummage like a "ventriloquist dummy," ultimately molding
his testimony - and his tapes - into whatever they wanted to hear.

"They've tried to make legit police investigative practices
into something improper or sinister," Taylor said. "In the end,
they have not made one single word of those tapes go away. These
are not the actions and words and conduct of innocent men."

On the tapes, Taylor says, Lawson attempts to encourage Rummage
to hire a lawyer he could control. The defense, however, contends
there is no admission of guilt by Lawson on any of them, and in
fact, a constant insistence of innocence.

"I never gave you any money and I ain't going to give you,"
Lawson says on one.

"Leonard, we both know better than that," Rummage responds.

Mackey said the federal government wanted to go after Lawson and
conspired to bring him down, causing him to be "caught in the
middle of a political shootout." The trial did take on a political
flavor at times, with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and his chief
Republican rival, Senate President David Williams, among those
taking the stand.

Mann pointed out that of Taylor's nearly 90-minute closing
argument, just a few minutes were spent on Nighbert.

U.S. District Judge Karl Forester dismissed a key part of the
government's bribery case against Nighbert and Lawson earlier this
week when he found there wasn't enough evidence to support the
prosecution's claim that Lawson helped Nighbert get a "fake"
consulting job as a kickback for his efforts in the scheme.

If anyone had a financial motive, the defense argued, it was
Rummage, who they said had been searching the Internet for
information on achieving whistleblower status and stands to make
considerable money in the future if there is a conviction through
his evidence.

Taylor said that was one of several smokescreens put up by the
defense during the trial. Rummage isn't seeking whistleblower
status, Taylor said, and wouldn't get "one red cent" even if he
did.

At the end of his closing argument, Taylor reminded the jury of
one recording in which Lawson told Rummage he wasn't worried about
himself because, "I can go to court and beat it."

"Don't let Leonard Lawson beat it," Taylor said. "Don't be
Leonard Lawson's jury. Be the people jury. Leonard Lawson can buy
Jim Rummage. He can't buy you."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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