MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA
One of U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg's challengers said the boat crash last month on Flathead Lake that injured the congressman and five others resulted from poor judgment by the congressman and a political colleague. Rehberg's campaign countered that Dennis McDonald was simply trying to use the accident to score political points. The other Democratic challenger in the race refrained from criticizing the accident and is instead using the event to talk about health care issues. But McDonald said Thursday in interviews that Rehberg and state Sen. Greg Barkus, who was driving the boat, showed poor judgment the night of the accident. McDonald said the two Republicans, which he called "drunken politicians," should not have been drinking before heading off across the lake. Rehberg has said he had less thanTwo beers, and said the hospital tested his alcohol level at .05, below the level considered legally impaired for a driver, which he wasn't. Barkus has not said anything, but the prosecutor in the case has said Barkus was drinking although no charges have been filed. McDonald, previously Democratic Party chairman, said Rehberg should set an example with a public apology for the crash that resulted in injuries to two of his employees. "We have an obligation to make good decisions when young people are involved," McDonald said. "Any reasonable person would recognize the danger in driving across Flathead Lake at 40 miles per hour late at night, a decision I suppose was made because both had been drinking." Although the Flathead County attorney has said the boat may have been going 40 mph, a speed has not been established and no citations have been issued. Rehberg said he views the incident as an accident, as does the family of the most seriously injured in the crash, Rehberg state director Dustin Frost. Frost was recently released from a rehab unit and continues to recover from a brain injury. "While the heroic response from strangers and first-responders after the crash embodied the best qualities of our state, using this accident to score political points is the ugliest part of the politics of personal destruction," said Tyler Matthews, Rehberg's campaign manager. "And it is the health and welfare of these people who are still recovering that are ever present on Denny's mind, not Dennis McDonald's shameless attempt to use this tragic accident to breathe life into his campaign that is faltering because of these types of endless, harsh and negative attacks." Tyler Gernant of Missoula, running for the Democratic nomination against McDonald, used the opportunity to talk about health care and said he would not pass judgment on the crash. "Honestly, I think that will be for Montanans to decide," Gernant said. "But I can say that I think Representative Rehberg is very fortunate to have publicly funded health insurance." Gernant supports leading congressional overhaul efforts, while McDonald backs a single-payer government run system not among the top Democratic offerings. Rehberg is critical of all the Democratic offerings.