Highway Dept. corruption in Kentucky, steered contracts to political supporters

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Road contracts linked to politics
Ex-official testifies in plea bargain
By Stephenie Steitzer
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
The Courier-Journal

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Former state Highway Engineer Sam Beverage gave private testimony yesterday about possible legal violations regarding road contracts allegedly steered to Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s political supporters, a prosecutor said.

Beverage’s testimony was part of a deal in which he pleaded guilty to official misconduct in connection with the investigation of the Fletcher administration’s hiring practices under the state merit system.

Beverage, who originally faced a felony charge of perjury, could serve up to a year in prison, although Franklin County Commonwealth’s Attorney Larry Cleveland said probation is likely. Beverage will be sentenced June 29 in Franklin Circuit Court.

While Beverage’s sentencing will bring the merit-system investigation to an end, it could mark the beginning of new scrutiny regarding the administration.

As part of the plea agreement, Beverage provided an hour of “open and frank discussion” about matters he was involved in at the Transportation Cabinet, Cleveland said yesterday.

He said Beverage provided a written statement and discussed, during a videotaped session, the steering of state road contracts to political supporters.

“Oh, we got information about contracts and hiring, all sorts of interesting things,” Cleveland said.

Asked if Beverage’s testimony indicated possible legal violations, Cleveland said, “Oh, yeah.”

Beverage, who was the second-highest-ranking official in the Department of Highways, specifically mentioned Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert and Highway Commissioner Marc Williams, Cleveland said, noting, “Those names came up.”

Cleveland declined to say whether Beverage’s testimony directly implicated Nighbert or Williams in any potential wrongdoing.

Cleveland said he would consult with the office of Attorney General Greg Stumbo, who led the merit-system investigation, to determine which law enforcement agency should get Beverage’s testimony.

“I prosecuted the case they wanted me to prosecute, and I’m finished at this point,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of Nighbert and Williams, Transportation Cabinet spokesman Doug Hogan said the fact that Beverage had been charged with perjury, and then pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of official misconduct, “calls into question the person’s credibility.”

“I think that puts this story into a little better context,” Hogan said.

Williams has been charged by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission with allegedly trying to steer a state engineering contract to a specific but unnamed firm in 2005.

If the commission finds Williams guilty, it can impose a fine of up to $5,000, issue a public reprimand and recommend that he be fired.

The commission already has settled a case against Beverage for his involvement in the same matter. Under the settlement, he admitted misconduct, was reprimanded and was fined $1,500.

Beverage has agreed to cooperate as the commission continues its investigation.

He was charged with perjury in the merit-system scandal after telling a grand jury in 2005 that politics played no part in the promotion of Highway Department employees in Eastern Kentucky.

He faced a sentence of up to five years in prison for the perjury charge.

Beverage’s attorney, Burl McCoy of Lexington, said his client accepted the plea deal because it reduced the charge to a misdemeanor and allowed him to avoid an expensive trial.

Beverage was among nine state officials fired by Fletcher in September 2005, based on the governor’s review of his administration’s personnel practices.

The grand jury’s merit-hiring investigation resulted in the indictments of 15 named individuals, including Fletcher. Fourteen other indictments were sealed.

Fletcher pardoned everyone charged in the case except himself and Beverage, whose crime had not occurred at the time the blanket pardon was issued. The charges against Fletcher were dropped in a deal with Stumbo’s office.

The offices of both Fletcher and Stumbo declined to comment yesterday.

While the ethics commission did not identify the company involved in its charge against Williams, a report by the Transportation Cabinet’s Office of Inspector General says it was DLZ Kentucky Inc., formerly Brighton Engineering, of Frankfort.

DLZ ultimately did not get the contract, and it has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The charge, which is pending, alleges that in March 2005 Williams indirectly tried to influence members of a cabinet selection committee in connection with a design contract for a bridge in Harrison County.

The charge says Williams violated the committee’s purpose, which is “removing favoritism and outside influence” from the process of awarding contracts to engineering consulting firms.