Montana legislator faces 3 felonies in boat crash
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MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer H E L E N A
P r o s e c u t o r s Wednesday filed felony charges against a Montana state senator accused of recklessly endangering a U.S. congressman and three others when he allegedly crashed a boat at high speed onto a rocky embankment after a night of drinking. Barkus denied drinking as much as prosecutors allege and said he was not impaired. State Sen. Greg Barkus was drinking scotch and wine before the Aug. 27 c r a s h a n d had a bloodalcohol level of .16 twice the legal limit when he was tested nearly two hours later at a hospital, prosecutors said in charging documents. U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg suffered a broken ankle and other injuries in the Flathead Lake crash, while Rehberg's state director, Dustin Frost, spent 10 days in a coma and has a severe brain injury. Barkus broke his pelvis and ribs and two others were also hurt. Barkus faces charges of criminal endangerment and two counts of negligent vehicular assault, each carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and significant fines, according to court documents filed Wednesday. One of the negligent vehicular assault counts cites the serious bodily injuries to Rehberg, while the other focuses on the injuries to Frost. A statement from Barkus' attorney, Todd Glazier, disputed key evidence and said the dinner receipt for Barkus will show he did not drink enough to be impaired. "We adamantly disagree with those alleged levels set forth in the charging document," Glazier wrote. "We have several witnesses that will testify that Mr. Barkus was not impaired at the time of the accident." Rehberg said Wednesday that he was surprised to learn the results of Barkus' blood alcohol test. "He didn't appear to be impaired to me when we got on the boat for the return trip," he said in a statement. A second alcohol test, taken four hours after the crash by state law enforcement officials investigating the crash, showed that Barkus was still legally drunk with a blood-alcohol level of .12, authorities said. A waitress reported giving Barkus two scotch liquor drinks, and others report that Barkus followed that with red wine at the end-of-summer dinner at a restaurant in Lakeside, prosecutors said. Barkus was driving a boat that didn't have a spotlight or other lighting and was navigating by a GPS system while driving as fast as 45 miles per hour, prosecutors said in charging documents. One passenger, Rehberg staffer Kristin Smith, said the boat was traveling "full speed." "According to Ms. Smith, at one point during the trip the defendant appeared to be confused about their direction of travel 'I think I'm turned around' and believed they were heading toward the river rather than Bigfork," prosecutors wrote. "At that time he made a 'big' course correction to the right." The boat went airborne before crashing fully out of the water. Rehberg has said he views the incident as an accident, as does Frost's family. "As the Frost family has said, this was just an unfortunate accident, but nothing more than an accident," Glazier said in a statement. The high-profile case prompted the judges in Flathead County to recuse themselves from the initial investigatory subpoena process, which they could do again in the criminal case. The state crime lab sent evidence out of state to avoid accusations of favoritism for the state senator. Public records show that Barkus was arrested in June 2004 for suspicion of drunk driving. He was ultimately convicted of reckless driving. Barkus, whose term expires next December and can't run again because of term limits, won't be in office when the Legislature convenes again for a regular session in January 2011. He'll be forced from office if convicted of a felony before his term expires.