Frankfort, KY – There are new developments, including a trial delay, in the federal highway bid-rigging case against Kentucky road contractor Leonard Lawson and two others. Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeigh has details.
Last September, a federal grand jury in Lexington indicted former Kentucky Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert, highway contractor Leonard Lawson and Lawson aide Brian Billings on charges of conspiracy, misapplication of property and obstruction of justice. The charges followed a yearlong FBI probe into the awarding of $130 million of state highway construction contracts. All three men pleaded not guilty and have been awaiting trial.
A successful change of venue motion moved the trial to Covington, but U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves split the case into two trials. The first, set for June 23rd, would deal with bribery conspiracy charges against Lawson and Nighbert. The second would cover obstruction of justice conspiracy charges against all three. But prosecutors balked, combined the conspiracy charges and re-indicted the men.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor told the Louisville Courier-Journal, "This calls what we see as a single unified conspiracy, a single unified conspiracy." But the move drew fire from Nighbert attorney Howard Mann.
"It appears clear that the re-indictment was designed to circumvent prior court rulings that were detrimental to the government's case," said Mann. "And that's more fully outlined in our recent filing."
Kent Wicker, attorney for Brian Billings, says he, too, was surprised by the government's pursuit of a superseding indictment against his client.
"It has told the court time and again that he is not part of that conspiracy - that there are two conspiracies and Brian Billings is not a party to that first conspiracy," said Wicker. "So, we were very surprised to see that the government is taking a position 180 degrees to the contrary now."
At their arraignment in federal district court in Frankfort, all three men entered not guilty pleas to the new indictment. It was also at the hearing that Judge Reeves revealed a possible conflict of interest that may require him to recuse himself from the case. More than 20 years ago, Reeves worked with a Louisville attorney who represented one of Leonard Lawson's companies. Reeves apologized for the lateness of the revelation, but said it just came to light because of evidence that may be presented at trial. Howard Mann appreciates the judge's candor.
"He did some research this weekend, before the parties were even aware or had it on their radar screen," said Mann. "The judge has indicated the parties will have an opportunity to brief that issue and give any input they have concerning whether or not recusal is mandatory."
Mann hopes it's not. So does Kent Wicker.
"We are hopeful that the law will allow him to stay on the case," said Wicker. "He's put a lot of time and careful attention into ruling on some complicated motions. That's a judicial investment that we would hope will not be lost."
If Reeves does have to step aside, it could cause further delays in the case, which is now in its eighth month. For those who don't earn their livings in the judicial system, the delays hurt, says attorney Guthrie True, who represents Leonard Lawson.
"Any delay, any disruption is devastating to a client. And it is to this client, because he's the one that has to live with what goes on here," said True. "The rest of us live in this world. Leonard Lawson and his wife and his family do not live in this world. This is foreign to them and they're anxious to move forward. So, to them, it's devastating."
For now, the case is on hold. The June 23rd trial date has been set aside. The next hearing in the case is later this month in Lexington.