, Corbin, KY

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January 29, 2010

Jury acquits former Ky. official, road contractor

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.

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