Whitesburg KY

Guv must testify, judge says


Gov. Steve Beshear will have to take the stand in a federal bid-rigging trial scheduled for next month in a move that’s likely to add interest to a case already garnering headlines across Kentucky.

U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves said Tuesday he may reconsider his decision once the trial starts if the governor’s schedule makes it difficult for him to get away from the Capitol.

Prosecutors want to call Beshear to testify against former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert, highway construction contractor Leonard Lawson and Lawson employee Brian Billings. They are accused of conspiring to steer some $130 million worth of construction contracts to Lawson’s companies.

All three have pleaded not guilty.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor had proposed allowing Beshear to testify via a video recording. Taylor said he wants Beshear to refute a statement made by Lawson in an audio recording. Taylor did not disclose details of the recorded statement, which is being held under seal.

Beshear attorney Ellen Hessen said the Legislature may be in special session during the trial, which would make it difficult for the governor to testify.

Reeves said he fears, if the governor is allowed to testify via a prerecorded video, its contents would be in newspapers even before the jury is seated.

Presiding over a hearing at the federal courthouse in Covington, Reeves said the bid-rigging case is getting an unprecedented amount of media coverage, which, he said, could make it difficult to seat an untainted jury.

“Everything that happens in this case ends up in the newspaper,” he said.

The trial, set to begin next month, has already been transferred from Frankfort to Covington because of pretrial publicity. Reeves said he expects media attention to increase as the trial gets nearer and that it could jeopardize the men’s right to a fair trial.

The judge said he expects he’d have to call 400 potential jurors to find 75 to 100 who haven’t been following the case in the newspapers.

“My first duty in this case is to make sure the defendants get a fair trial,” Reeves said. “If I need to move this case from Covington to London or Pikeville or Ashland, I will not hesitate to do so.”

Reeves and U.S. Magistrate Judge James Todd have sealed much of the court file, putting it off limits to the public. Earlier this month, Todd also closed a hearing to reporters.

At the request of attorneys for The

Courier-Journal and the Lexington

Herald-Leader, Reeves agreed Tuesday to release at least portions of a transcript of that hearing. Defense attorneys objected to releasing parts that dealt with statements made in sealed audio recordings of telephone conversations that may be used as evidence in the trial.

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