Former state Sen. Greg Barkus received a four-year deferred sentence and was ordered to pay $29,000 in fines Thursday for charges stemming from an August 2009 boat crash on Flathead Lake. The sentence, handed down by Malta District Judge John McKeon, is tougher than the proposed plea deal reached between Barkus and prosecutors, which was a three-year sentence and $4,000 fine.
“I’ve taken full responsibility for this accident,” Barkus said, shortly before McKeon announced the sentence. “I’ll have the memories and nightmares forever.”
As part of the sentence, Barkus will also be on supervised probation, though if there are no violations and he pays the fine in full, he can petition for release after two years.
Barkus pleaded no contest Dec. 2 to felony criminal endangerment, as part of a plea deal that dismissed an additional two charges of negligent vehicular assault. The combined charges carried a maximum of 30 years in prison, all of which stemmed from a crash that occurred the night of Aug. 27, 2009, when the boat Barkus was piloting collided with the rocky shoreline, just south of Bigfork, injuring all five passengers. Also on the boat were U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., two young members of his staff, and Barkus’ wife, Kathy.
Because the judge altered the terms of the plea agreement, Barkus had the opportunity Thursday to withdraw his plea and go to trial. After a 20-minute recess, he took the deal.
In describing his reasoning for the sentence, McKeon outlined what he termed the “aggravating” and “mitigating” circumstances of the case. Among the aggravating circumstances, as detailed in a presentencing investigative report, McKeon noted that Barkus, navigating with GPS, drove his boat from Lakeside toward Bigfork on a very dark night, after consuming “at least two drinks of alcohol.” Prosecutors alleged Barkus’ blood alcohol content was 0.16, twice the legal limit, when taken nearly two hours after the crash.
McKeon quoted from the report of an accident reconstruction expert specializing in boat crashes who wrote, “in all of my recreational boat crash experience, I don’t recall ever seeing a crash of such violence,” such that the boat’s V-8 engine was ripped from its mounts, making it likely the boat was traveling at least 40 miles per hour upon impact with the rocky shoreline of Wayfarer’s State Park.
The severity of the injuries sustained by the victims was also a factor, McKeon said, pointing out that Dustin Frost, Rehberg’s state director at the time, was in a coma for several days and “continues to report that he has neurological problems.” Rehberg suffered a broken ankle and a blow to the head. His deputy chief of staff, Kristin Smith, and Kathy Barkus suffered less severe injuries, though Smith was hospitalized for four days.
Among the “mitigating” circumstances, McKeon noted were the fact that Barkus, 64, is retired after a “long-term and well-respected career” in finance and as a state legislator. In the 2009 Legislature, Barkus served as the Republican majority whip in the Senate. Smith, Frost and Kathy Barkus also submitted letters in support of Barkus, urging against a harsh sentence. And Barkus has “shown remorse,” McKeon said. “He has taken the initiative on his own to have a chemical dependency evaluation.”
But McKeon, just before announcing he was rejecting the plea deal, pointed to prior traffic offenses by Barkus where he was cited for speeding and reckless driving.
“It involved speed; it involved excessive speed,” McKeon said. “There is reason to be concerned that there could be a pattern.”
In his closing statement, Barkus thanked the campers and emergency medical personnel who responded on the night of the crash, and for the treatment received at Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
“They say that it’s harder to be the spouse or a family member to a politician than to be the politician himself,” Barkus said, thanking his children and wife for what they endured reading and watching media coverage of the crash and its aftermath. “They’re the ones that heard me cry.”
He added that he believed his wife, “checked out of the hospital sooner than she should have just to be helpful to me.”
Following the proceedings, Barkus said, contrary to some assertions that he was receiving preferential treatment as an elected official, that “I think I’m being treated a little harder just because of what happened and who was with me and who was hurt.”
Then he handed out a written statement, urging others to “learn from my mistake.”
“All too often the advertised consequence of drinking and driving is an, ‘arrest,’” Barkus’ statement said. “Even if it is not your fault and an accident occurs where someone is hurt, you will face serious consequences, consequences that may be far greater than the embarrassment of an arrest.”
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