A Montana judge on Wednesday released a redacted investigative report in the 2009 boat crash that injured U.S. Senate candidate Denny Rehberg, a document that confirms many facts of the case and includes some new details.
The 155-page document is a 2011 presentencing investigation report compiled after the boat’s driver, state Sen. Greg Barkus, pleaded no contest to felony criminal endangerment.
One game warden expressed frustration that some emergency responders, months after the crash, appeared to backtrack on statements of smelling alcohol at the scene.
Barkus piloted the boat into the rocky shore of Flathead Lake at a high rate of speed and with a blood-alcohol content that was at least twice the legal limit – 0.16 percent – two hours after the accident, according to the original charges and details in the released report. All five people on board were injured, including Rehberg, two aides and Barkus’ wife.
Many lines in the report are blacked out to comply with Judge John McKeon’s order that the defendant’s and victims’ personal information not be released. The documents were relied upon by District Judge John McKeon in sentencing Barkus, as part of a plea deal.
The former Republican state senator from Kalispell was given a four-year deferred prison sentence, $29,000 in fines and supervised probation.
The edited documents included victim impact statements, witness interviews and the firsthand accounts of first responders and investigators. They all confirm information that was part of the original charges against Barkus.
Rehberg is in a tight race to unseat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in Tuesday’s election.
Passengers and witnesses reported that Barkus had perhaps two glasses of whiskey, along with wine, during an “end of summer” party at a lakeside restaurant before driving across the lake. Barkus piloted the boat at a high rate of speed on a dark night, trying to make navigational corrections with the help of a GPS system, according to the investigation.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden Nathan Reiner wrote in a report three months after the accident that he believed some first responders at the scene were minimizing the role alcohol played in the crash by backtracking on initial statements – included in the report – that alcohol could be smelled on Barkus at the crash scene.
“I was recently informed that no fire or ambulance personnel now admit to smelling alcohol on Barkus’ person,” Reiner wrote.
Reiner said he confronted Big Fork Fire Chief Chuck Harris on the change, who told him “it is possible that some did not want to get involved and that others may have been giving me assumptions due to the nature of the crash.”
One of Rehberg’s staffers, Kristen Smith, told the warden who interviewed her at the hospital that she recalled Barkus ordering scotch and drinking wine, information that was all part of the original charges against Barkus.
Barkus wrote to the court before the 2011 sentencing that he was asked to share an evening on Flathead Lake with Rehberg and some staff members. He had previously entertained Rehberg on the lake, and the congressman told him he thought it would be a nice way them to “enjoy a little Montana beauty.”
He told the court that he had not had anything to drink since the August 2009 crash.
“I used bad judgment, made bad decisions and five people were seriously hurt,” Barkus wrote. “By relying on a GPS for navigation on a route that I was not familiar with for nighttime boating, I crashed my boat on the shore.
“I am so thankful that all the victims have recovered and are back enjoying their regular lives.”
One expert witness called by the court estimated the 1998 Mirage boat could have been traveling near 50 mph, faster than the 40 mph estimate of some investigators, and couldn’t recall investigating a small boat crash of “such violence.”
The investigators found a crash site filled with boat debris, one that witnesses reported smelled like gasoline and blood.
Nothing in the report indicated that there was a lapse in judgment on the part of any of the boat’s passengers, nor was any of their individual alcohol consumption reported to the court. Rehberg, who told reporters after the crash that he drank some beer that night, declined to provide a victim impact statement to the court.
Rehberg suffered cracked ribs, a fractured eye socket and a sheared left leg bone just above his foot. Rehberg has said the only thing holding the foot on was his cowboy boot.
Rehberg’s former state director, Dustin Frost, was in a coma for about 10 days after the crash and underwent intensive physical therapy before returning to work. Rehberg’s deputy chief of staff, Kristin Smith, suffered several broken bones, and Barkus suffered a broken pelvis.
Barkus reported his insurance company paid out a maximum claim of $500,000 for the effects of the crash. Frost reported that and his own insurance covered his bills.
The report was released based upon requests from The Associated Press and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
McKeon agreed to the request over the objection of Barkus’ attorney, noting that both Barkus and Rehberg were public officials at the time.
Rehberg campaign manager Erik Iverson said the congressman agrees with McKeon’s decision to release the records.
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