The Boat Crash Blame Game

By Kellyn Brown

The argument that Congressman Denny Rehberg was to blame for the boating accident that seriously injured him and four others began long before investigators towed the vessel off the rocks it collided with. And while much of the criticism has merit, the majority of it doesn’t.

A quick refresher, for those of you who have avoided all forms of media over the last two weeks: Kalispell state Sen. Greg Barkus (who had been drinking, but we don’t yet know how much) crashed his boat into the rocky shore at Wayfarers Park near Bigfork on the night of Aug. 27. Barkus, his wife and Rehberg and two of his staffers were seriously hurt. And as of this writing, Dustin Frost, Rehberg’s state director, remains hospitalized with a severe brain injury.

That Barkus hit the shore with such velocity that he launched his boat completely out of the water prompted immediate speculation that he was inebriated. And if investigators find that he was, he will be prosecuted like anyone else. But many still want to pin significant blame on Rehberg for no other reason than because he is Rehberg.

Some of the criticisms are legitimate:

Accountability: This is the big one. If Barkus appeared intoxicated (which may not have been the case at all) before the passengers boarded, then Rehberg bears some responsibility, not just for himself, but for his two staffers who were injured because they were accompanying him.

Erik Iverson: It’s obvious that Rehberg brought in his former chief staff to conduct damage control. While he may be Rehberg’s longtime friend, Iverson is also a seasoned political professional. His reassuming the role of the congressman’s point man following the accident didn’t look right. It appeared that the big guns had been called in to hide something.

Then there are criticisms that make less sense, like these:

Health Care: After Rehberg was taken to the hospital, his many critics pointed out that his government-funded medical insurance would cover the costs of fixing his broken ankle. They also pointed out that, since the congressman has coverage and opposes the Democrats’ aims of reforming health care to expand coverage, he is somehow a villain.

The health care debate certainly has its place, but it’s not here.

Values Party: Since both Barkus and Rehberg are members of the GOP, some have argued that the circumstances surrounding the accident (a dinner party where alcohol was served!) are especially hypocritical.

But it would be no different if there were Democrats aboard that boat. Republicans are no longer (i.e.: Larry Craig, Mark Sanford, John Ensign) the “values party.”

Back-slapping Cover-up: When Rehberg’s and Barkus’ blood-alcohol test results were not released immediately, some reporters and bloggers questioned whether Flathead County authorities were stonewalling the media. Both County Attorney Ed Corrigan and Sheriff Mike Meehan have supported Republicans, including Barkus, in the past, but neither would risk their jobs by covering up details in this boat crash – to say nothing of their moral imperatives to seek justice. Barkus’ alcohol tests haven’t been released because they had to be sent to an independent crime lab. A Democratic lawmaker, ironically, heads Montana’s.

Kazakhstan Connection: Others have used the boat crash to paint Rehberg as a wild-eyed boozer and have brought up (once again) rumors of the Congressman’s 2004 trip to Kazakhstan in which he was reportedly drunk on vodka and fell off a horse and was trampled by another. Rehberg has denied the accusation that was first reported from an anonymous e-mail. Either way, riding a horse in Kazakhstan has nothing to do with boating on Flathead Lake.

A terrible accident occurred and much of what happened that night remains unknown. That pointless speculation filled the void when little information was available is an unsurprising but disappointing part of accidents involving public figures. But until more facts come to light, those wishing political ills on the victims might find a better use for their time in wishing them a speedy and full recovery.

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