Former state Sen. Greg Barkus of Kalispell on Thursday was dealt a four-year deferred sentence and ordered to pay $29,000 in fines and restitution for criminal endangerment stemming from a 2009 boat crash on Flathead Lake.
He agreed to the sentence after a judge rejected a more lenient plea agreement in Flathead County District Court.
Barkus, 64, also will be placed on supervised probation as directed by Malta District Judge John McKeon, who declined to accept a deal reached between Barkus and the Flathead County Attorney's Office.
The agreement, signed by Barkus' attorney Todd Glazier and Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan, had called for a three-year deferred sentence and $4,000 in restitution with unsupervised probation.
Before delivering the sentence, McKeon summarized several letters sent in support of Barkus and characterized him as a dedicated public servant who has been cooperative and respectful to law enforcement officials and prosecutors.
"It does punish him, recognizing the serious degree of harm that was caused," McKeon said. "It also holds him accountable."
Barkus, a former Republican legislative leader, pleaded no contest to a felony charge of criminal endangerment Dec. 2, 2010.
He had reached a plea agreement with prosecutors more than a year after the Aug. 27, 2009, Flathead Lake boat crash that injured Barkus, his wife, Kathy, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., and two members of Rehberg's staff.
Prosecutors say Barkus had a blood-alcohol level of at least .16 - twice the legal limit - when his boat crashed into the rocky shoreline at Wayfarers State Park near Bigfork at about 10 o'clock that summer night. Barkus maintains that he had only two alcoholic beverages before piloting the boat from Lakeside to Bigfork.
McKeon referred to a report by Richard Snyder, a collision reconstruction expert retained by prosecutors, who wrote that "I don't recall ever seeing a crash of such violence."
Snyder concluded the boat was traveling at speeds of up to 45 mph when it crashed into the shoreline with enough force to rip the boat's engine from its mounting.
Barkus initially was charged with criminal endangerment and two counts of negligent vehicular assault; the latter charges were dismissed at Thursday's sentencing.
Barkus could have faced up to 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine, the maximum punishment for criminal endangerment.
McKeon began Thursday's hearing by stating that he would reject the plea agreement.
He offered Barkus and his attorney Todd Glazier an opportunity to withdraw Barkus' no-contest plea and go to trial and allowed both Glazier and prosecutors to present testimony or evidence.
In delivering his own final statement, Barkus stood and thanked the campers who assisted him and the other victims of the crash, the Flathead County Sheriff's Office and Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
He began to cry when thanking his family for supporting him throughout the legal proceedings.
"It's harder to be a spouse or family member of a politician than it is to be a politician," he said. "They're the ones that heard me cry."
He said he holds himself accountable for the crash.
"I've taken full responsibility for this accident," he said. "I'll have the memories and nightmares forever."
After a 20-minute recess, Glazier accepted McKeon's sentence on behalf of Barkus, who can petition to have the conviction expunged from his record in two years if he pays the fines and abides by the conditions of his probation.
During the hearing, Glazier implored McKeon to take into account Barkus' community service, lack of criminal history and the wishes of the victims in determining a sentence.
Glazier maintained that alcohol consumption was not a factor in the boat crash, citing accounts of victims and those present before the crash.
"There was no indication Greg was intoxicated that night," Glazier said.
He cited a letter from Rehberg's former state director Dustin Frost in which Frost wrote that Barkus did not appear to be drunk. Frost, who was in a coma following the crash, was the most seriously injured occupant of the boat.
"I would never have entered a vehicle operated by an individual I believed to be intoxicated," Frost wrote.
County Attorney Ed Corrigan defended the punishment suggested in the plea agreement.
He said he researched similar cases in Flathead County District Court and found the proposed sentence to be in line with what has been offered to other defendants.
"It's not unheard-of in this jurisdiction," he said.
Corrigan called probation officer Keely Absalonson to present the findings of a pre-sentence investigation report that recommended a suspended sentence that would have remained on Barkus' record.
She detailed his legal history, which includes speeding tickets in 1998 and 2000 and a conviction for reckless driving in 2004.
McKeon said he was concerned that each of the charges was the result of Barkus traveling at an excessive speed.
"There is reason to be concerned that there could be a pattern, whether it be by car or boat," McKeon said.
Absalonson said Frost still has neurological problems as a result of the crash. Rehberg suffered a severely broken ankle, a slight fracture near his eye and cuts, while his chief of staff Kristin Smith was hospitalized for four days.
Barkus had a broken pelvis and ribs, among other injuries.
Barkus' insurance company has paid for the medical bills of the victims, Absalonson said, adding the costs exceeded the $500,000 policy.
Frost, who now is self-employed as a political consultant, wrote a letter to McKeon in which he asked for a lenient sentence for Barkus.
"This event was an accident for which I hold no ill will for Mr. Barkus," Frost wrote in a letter dated July 19, 2010.
Prior to sentencing, Glazier acknowledged that some people believe Barkus received favorable treatment. Glazier said that it was a "very defensible case" and indicated that could have resulted in a lighter sentence had there been a trial.
"It's not an easy pill for us to swallow on the deferred [sentence] either," Glazier said.
After he was sentenced, Barkus said he didn't get the sentence he was hoping for but that he was pleased to put the legal proceedings behind him.
He said he hopes to spend his probation in both Kalispell and California, where he has a second home.
"We hoped to have some finality," Barkus said. "And the light at the end of the tunnel is not a freight train."
Barkus, who took legislative office in 2003, recently completed his final term in the Montana Senate. In 2008 he retired as an executive from D.A. Davidson after a career in finance and banking.
McKeon was appointed to oversee Barkus' case after Flathead County's three District Court judges removed themselves to avoid any appearance of impropriety. The local judges had worked with Barkus on legislation in 2009 to add a fourth judge in Flathead County.
Reporter Eric Schwartz may be reached at 758-4441 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.