Flathead County prosecutors ended a prolonged, court-imposed silence last week and finally filed charges of criminal endangerment and two counts of negligent vehicular assault against state Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell. For those adrift at sea the past six weeks, the charges come after Barkus crashed his boat Aug. 27 into the rocky shore of Wayfarers State Park, injuring all five aboard, including U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg. A Rehberg staffer and University of Montana alumnus, Dustin Frost, sustained a severe brain injury that kept him in a coma for 10 days. According to the charges, Barkus' boat was not equipped with proper lighting, was traveling approximately 40 mph, and Barkus' blood alcohol content nearly two hours after the crash registered .16, or twice the legal limit.
Right about now, Barkus might be feeling a little anchorless, hunkered down in his Kalispell home awaiting his Oct. 26 arraignment. But Barkus is hardly alone. In fact, he's only one of an alarming number of elected officials accused of boozing and driving each year in the United States.
Take Tennessee Rep. Rob Briley, who had his 2007 arrest posted on YouTube. The chairman of the state's House Judiciary Committee took police on a 100-mile chase before stopping his rig and finishing his drink at gunpoint, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Then there's New Hampshire Sen. William Denley, who resigned this year after his third drunk driving arrest, according to news reports. Those following Barkus' history may remember that Lake County officers charged him in 2004 with driving under the influence—a charge later reduced to reckless driving—after pulling over his white Corvette going nearly 20 mph over the speed limit. Regardless, Barkus told the Associated Press last week that he planned to finish out his term.
Another instructive example comes from closer to home. Officers caught then-Montana Rep. Scott Boggio, R-Red Lodge, driving over a curb one Saturday night in 2007. Boggio blew a .14. Boggio's passenger, Elsie Arntzen, a Republican legislator from Billings and a member of the Yellowstone County DUI Task Force, said she had no idea Boggio was toasted—just as Rehberg claimed he thought Barkus was sober the night of his accident. But more important with the Boggio example, the state legislator issued a public apology for his actions. Barkus has yet to express any remorse for what he did on Aug. 27.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Barkus maintains he wasn't sloshed that night, and his attorney says the blood alcohol reading is flat-out wrong. Let the courts decide that, but we'd like to at least hear Barkus acknowledge some accountability for launching his boat onto the shore and putting his passengers in harm's way.