Whitesburg KY

More audio recordings played in bid-rig case


Defense lawyers played audio recordings this week that captured FBI agents coaching a key witness in a high-profile bid-rigging case about what to say in telephone calls to the subjects of a federal investigation.

The recordings had been kept under wraps until they were played during a hearing in U.S. District Court in Lexington.

FBI agent Clay Mason is heard on the tape telling former deputy state highway engineer Jim Rummage to act “agitated and exasperated” in calls to former Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert and prominent Kentucky highway contractor Leonard Lawson.

Nighbert and Lawson are accused of conspiring to steer $130 million in highway construction projects to Lawson’s companies. A third man, Lawson aide Brian Billings, also is charged in the case. All three have entered not guilty pleas, and are scheduled to stand trial on Jan. 11.

On the recordings, Mason and another agent discussed with Rummage a ruse intended to get the men to implicate themselves in the alleged bid-rigging conspiracy.

“We’re going to be kind of forceful,” Mason said told Rummage. “You know, just kind of ram it at them.”

Mason, who spent all day Monday on the witness stand, said he saw nothing wrong with coaching Rummage on what to say on calls to the defendants.

U.S. District Judge Karl Forester, who presided during the hearing, hasn’t yet decided whether to allow those recordings and others as evidence in the upcoming trial. At the conclusion of three days of testimony, Forester gave attorneys five weeks to file legal briefs on the issue, after which he is expected to rule.

Rummage, who testified Aug. 6 and 7, said he had recorded multiple conversations with Nighbert, Lawson and Billings, at first to gather evidence to protect himself from criminal charges and later in cooperation with FBI agents who had begun an investigation.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Todd had ordered the recordings off limits earlier this year to anyone other than the lawyers involved in the case.

Defense attorneys argued that the recordings of the “coaching sessions” are important evidence that they want to use at trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor said in a previous legal brief that federal investigators did nothing “improper, sinister or untoward” in advising Rummage on what to say.

“Deceit, deception, lying, cover stories and subterfuge are not only permissible law enforcement techniques, they are time-honored, desirable and indispensable,” Taylor wrote.

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