HELENA – State Sen. Greg Barkus has missed almost a year’s worth of committee assignments ever since last summer’s boat crash that landed U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg in the hospital. But he says he’ll be making the meetings the rest of the year.
The lawmaker, 63, is still facing charges of criminal endangerment and negligent vehicular assault for being at the helm of the boat after allegedly drinking the night of Aug. 26. The Flathead Lake accident seriously injured him and his four passengers, including Rehberg.
Other passengers on that boat that were severely injured have since returned to work — most notably Rehberg and his former state director, Dustin Frost, who is now a consultant in Billings after recovering from a lengthy coma.
Barkus, a retired investment adviser, said he was in a wheelchair during September and October and was unable to attend committee meetings. During the winter and spring months he was in California, and he was prevented from attending last month’s Audit Committee meeting due to a flood at his home.
Records show that Barkus has not been attending the Audit Committee — which serves the important role of investigating mismanagement in state government — or appeared in his oversight role at the state Board of Investments.
That legislative liaison to the Board of Investments was created several years ago in the wake of big losses in the pension system as a way to make sure lawmakers could help make sure no big mistakes were made. But Barkus has missed all three of that board’s meetings since August.
Barkus, whose term expires at the end of the year and was prevented form running again due to term limits, remains steadfast that he will complete his four-year Senate term. The Kalispell Republican said he has been reviewing key materials at home even though he missed meetings.
“I am going to finish out the term,” Barkus said. “I am fully healed, and fully prepared to attend the rest of the committee hearings or any special sessions that come before us.”
Barkus, who has granted few interviews since the crash, said he is still unable to discuss anything about the crash, or the court case where authorities allege he was drinking before taking the passengers on a late-night run across the lake.
Prosecutors say Barkus’ blood-alcohol level was 0.16, or twice the legal limit, two hours after the crash.
Barkus’ attorney has argued he will challenge the way investigators gathered evidence, including blood samples taken at Kalispell Regional Medical Center after the accident. He has claimed illegal search and seizure and illegal arrest, and wants that evidence suppressed.
The trial has been postponed until later this year.
Barkus said he has continued to do much of the more local constituent work that comes with the jobs, and noted that he does not get paid when he does not attend the committee hearings.
“I will be attending from here on out,” Barkus said.
Fellow lawmakers in charge of setting committee membership appear willing to give Barkus a great deal of leeway.
Audit Committee chairman Sen. Mitch Tropilla, D-Great Falls, said after the last meeting that he has not pursued the issue with Barkus and was not sure of the senator’s personal details.
“He hasn’t given me any indication he will make it, and he hasn’t given me any indication he won’t,” Tropilla said. “At the end of the day it is a citizen legislature and everyone wants to be here, but sometimes can’t be.”
Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City, said he has not discussed the issue with Barkus, and does not plan to.
“I haven’t talked to Greg all year, so I don’t know what his situation is whether he is around or gone or what,” Story said.