Thursday, February 13, 2003

Patton case hits grand jury

Investigation revolves around Tina Conner

By Tom Loftus
The Courier-Journal

A federal grand jury in Covington heard testimony Wednesday from past and present officials of the Patton administration in the Tina Conner investigation.

The testimony was part of the grand jury's continuing investigation into whether Conner got any special favors in winning certification as a ``disadvantaged" contractor entitled to a preference in getting work on state road contracts.

Witnesses included Jerry Johnson, an aide to Gov. Paul Patton and former state Democratic Party chairman, and Denis Fleming, general counsel for the governor's office.

``Out of respect to the grand jury and because the investigation is ongoing, I can't comment on the particulars of my appearance,'' Fleming said later yesterday.

The grand jury also heard from Norris Beckley and Ronald Derricks - two former Transportation Cabinet officials who oversaw the program intended to give construction firms owned by women and minorities a break in winning government work.

"I was probably before the grand jury for a little over an hour. I can't say specifically what I told them. But generally it's the same story

I've been telling everyone for the past few months," Beckley said. "That is that I felt pressure from the secretary's office and indirectly from the governor's office to certify Tina Conner's construction company."

Derricks declined to comment.

Conner is the Hickman County businesswoman who charged in a lawsuit in September that she had an affair with Gov. Paul Patton, and during that affair she won special favors from his administration, including the certification by the Transportation Cabinet as a "disadvantaged business enterprise."

Conner formed a construction company called ST Construction in early 2000 and immediately applied for the certification from the state. Both Beckley and Derricks said that they thought that Conner was too inexperienced in construction, and probably too wealthy, to meet the program's requirements. But both said they felt pressure from the office of Transportation Secretary James Codell III to approve Conner's application.

Codell said he did not apply any such pressure.

Patton has admitted the affair with Conner, but denied that state government has ever done her any special favors.

Codell was not a witness before the grand jury yesterday. But Beckley said two current and one former cabinet official did appear to testify.

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