KALISPELL - Former state Sen. Greg Barkus received a harsher punishment than expected Thursday when a district judge jettisoned a plea deal in the felony case and instead prescribed a four-year deferred prison sentence and $29,000 in fines.
Last month, Barkus pleaded no contest to a count of criminal endangerment for his role in an August 2009 boat crash on Flathead Lake that seriously injured U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, two of his staff members - and both Barkus and his wife, Kathy.
A plea agreement in the case called for a three-year deferred sentence, a $4,000 restitution payment and a term of unsupervised probation.
But at a sentencing hearing Thursday in Flathead County District Court, Judge John McKeon of Malta rejected the agreement and proposed the more severe sentence, which includes a term of supervised probation and much heavier fines.
The judge then broke for a recess to allow Barkus and his attorney time to confer, after which the former senator said he would accept the revised punishment.
By law, Barkus had the option to withdraw his plea and proceed to trial rather than accept the sentence.
"I've accepted full responsibility for this accident," Barkus said.
The former Republican lawmaker will not serve any prison time under the deferred sentence, but he is required to pay a $25,000 fine in annual installments of $8,000. He wrote a check for the $4,000 restitution payment on Thursday.
Barkus, 64, of Kalispell, reached an initial plea deal with prosecutors in November, more than a year after he crashed his boat onto the rocky shores of Flathead Lake after drinking alcohol. The crash seriously injured all five people on board.
At the time of the crash, Barkus had a blood-alcohol level of at least 0.16, according to blood samples taken by authorities. He maintains he was not drunk, however, and witnesses said he did not appear intoxicated.
Dustin Frost, Rehberg's former state director who was in a coma for more than a week after the accident, and Rehberg's deputy chief of staff, Kristin Smith, who also was injured, both submitted statements to the court in support of the lesser sentence.
Barkus and his attorney, Todd Glazier, expressed disappointment that McKeon deviated from the plea agreement.
Glazier said the imposed sentence was inconsistent with similar cases in which the victims are in support of the plea agreement and a defendant has no prior felony convictions. He described the heavy fine as penance for Barkus' social status rather than a reflection of a typical endangerment case.
"He got a worse deal than anybody else would have gotten in the same position," Glazier said. "I haven't seen a fine amount that high ever."
Still, Barkus said he is relieved to have the case resolved and grateful that the victims have all made full recoveries.
"Let me begin by saying how truly sorry that I am to all of the victims," Barkus said in a written statement. "Although all have recovered quite well, the pain and suffering that they endured was a result of my actions and will always be a burden in my heart and mind."
Barkus implored members of the public never to drink and drive, even after having "a couple of drinks," and warned of the potential consequences.
"Even if it is not your fault and an accident occurs where someone is hurt, you will face serious consequences," he said.
McKeon, a judge in the 17th Judicial District, said his reasons for rejecting the plea agreement were due in part to the serious nature of the boating accident, which was described as "violent" by officials in charge of reconstructing the crash.
A lengthy presentence investigation report says Barkus piloted his boat across Flathead Lake from Lakeside to Bigfork on a dark night after consuming alcohol, which McKeon said reflects a lapse of judgment.
The former senator's previous lapses in judgment also influenced the judge's sentencing decision, McKeon said.
Barkus has prior convictions that include reckless driving, two speeding tickets, a stop sign violation and a violation for operating a motor vehicle with expired registration.
The reckless driving incident occurred in Lake County in 2004 and was originally charged as a DUI. In that case, Barkus was arrested on the west side of Flathead Lake and refused a breath test for alcohol. He was cited for speeding in addition to DUI, but Lake County prosecutors eventually reached a plea agreement that saw Barkus plead guilty to reckless driving, pay a fine, and attend the ACT program in exchange for dismissal of the other charges.
The judge said Barkus' lengthy career in politics and finance, coupled with his remorse and acceptance of responsibility, also influenced his sentencing decision.
McKeon was chosen to preside over the case after attorneys on each side rejected two previous out-of-county judges. By statute, prosecutors and defense attorneys each have the opportunity to substitute an assigned judge without giving cause.
If Barkus successfully completes the four-year term without any probation violations, his felony conviction could be cleared. He may also petition to have the sentence lifted after two years if he pays the fine and obeys the conditions of probation.
The maximum penalty for criminal endangerment is 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine, and Glazier conceded that although McKeon "deviated from the plea agreement, he didn't kill us."
McKeon also ordered two counts of negligent vehicular assault dismissed. Each felony count carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
"It is my hope that everyone will learn from my mistake," Barkus said.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 260-4197 or at email@example.com.