LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- A jury acquitted a former Kentucky cabinet secretary and a road contractor of bribery and other charges, ending a federal probe into allegations of corruption and cronyism that investigators said tainted the state process of awarding highway contracts.
Former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert and influential contractor Leonard Lawson were accused of scheming to steer millions of dollars worth of state highway projects to Lawson's companies and could have faced decades in prison if convicted on all counts.
Although the trial focused just on the two men and their alleged misdeeds, it took on a political tone at times, with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican Senate President David Williams among those called to testify.
Part of the defense given by Lawson and Nighbert's lawyers was that the two men were personal friends, which they said explained the numerous phone calls between them during the period between 2006 and 2007 when prosecutors allege the illegal activity took place.
However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor told the jury the two men also had a "cozy" business relationship that ultimately led them to conspire to unfairly influence the process by which the state awards road contracts.
A 22-page indictment issued by a grand jury in 2008 accused Nighbert of arranging to supply his friend with internal cost estimates prepared by the transportation department, giving Lawson an unfair edge to develop his project bids.
Most of the prosecution's opening statement and closing argument focused on Lawson. Nighbert's kickback, Taylor charged, was a "fake" consulting job he landed with one of Lawson's companies after he left the government. However, the judge determined there wasn't enough proof and threw out the bribery charges related to the job.
Central to the government's case on the other charges was the testimony of Jim Rummage, a former engineer with the transportation department who says he delivered the internal project estimates to Lawson at Nighbert's request. Lawson usually rewarded him with handfuls of cash, said Rummage, who initially denied the transactions to investigators but later became a government informer and the prosecution's star witness.
Rummage also recorded conversations with Lawson. Although Taylor told the jury the recorded statements were "not the words of an innocent man," the defense pointed out there was never any admission of guilt and, in fact, several denials.
"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.
Attacking Rummage's credibility was a key part of the defense, and U.S. District Judge Karl Forester had even suggested some reservations about him prior to the trial. Nighbert's attorney, Howard Mann, charged the government was treating its star witness like a "ventriloquist dummy," and said he implicated Lawson and Nighbert to protect himself.
Also charged is Lawson employee Brian Russell Billings, who is named in the indictment but will be tried later. On Friday morning, jurors reviewed at their request a video Rummage secretly made of Billings.
Rummage had testified he expected to be paid cash during the meeting, with federal law enforcement standing by to make an arrest. He wasn't paid, but Rummage said Billings did show him a text message during the meeting pressuring him to hire a different attorney and that Lawson would pay if he did.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)