A federal grand jury handed down new indictments July 13 against construction companies and employees involved in a bribery scheme during a federally mandated $3-billion repair of the Jefferson County, Ala., sewer system.

The grand jury indicted an additional five men and three construction and engineering firms on counts of bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud and obstruction. The grand jury had indicted six men and one construction company in February. One county maintenance official pleaded guilty in May to charges of accepting bribes.

Chris McNair, a former Jefferson County Commissioner, is the most prominent defendant in the new indictment. A leader of the civil rights movement, he is the father of one of the four girls killed in the 16th street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. The indictment accuses McNair of receiving over $194,000 of illicit benefits in the form of free construction and remodeling to McNair Frame & Photo Art, Birmingham, and over $150,000 in miscellaneous gifts, such as cash and vacations.

Most of the defendants face charges of bribing county officials in exchange for the award of no-bid contracts on the overhaul of the city’s sewer system. In addition to McNair, the indicted companies include Rast Construction, US Infrastructure and F.W. Dougherty Engineering & Associates.

An attorney for F.W. Doughterty Engineering President Pat Dougherty says the charges against his client are unjustified. "The record will probably show that there were some gratuities, but they were simply favors between friends who didn’t think about the consequence of their actions." The no-bid contracts were merely the result of officials rushing to get the work done in an efforts to remain within the terms of the consent decree ordering the sewer system overhaul, he says.

Other defendants either had no comment or could not be reached for comment.

The defendants face maximum sentences that could put them behind bars for decades and cost them millions in fines.

The construction executives facing the harshest penalties are those named in the original indictment. Joseph Yessick, president of Roland Pugh Construction, Bessemer, Ala., faces four counts of conspiracy, four counts of bribery, and sixteen counts of mail fraud. His potential penalties total 380 years in prison and a $6 million fine

The sewer project itself is actually on schedule despite the corruption and some ill-advised projects, says Beth Stewart, executive director of the Cahaba River Society, Birmingham. The county is still on course to eliminate sewer overflows by 2007, as stipulated by the consent decree in 1996.