HELENA - The broken and bruised ribs Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., suffered after tumbling from a horse while on an official trip to Kazakhstan recently hasn't slowed him down, but talk about the cause of the accident has.
Rehberg, who said he was trampled by another horse after he slipped off the saddle while dismounting from his ride, has spent much time since then telling reporters he was not intoxicated at the time of the accident.
A widely circulated but anonymous e-mail, which appears to be written by someone within the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan, caused a firestorm in Republican political circles this week after the Washington, D.C., newspaper Roll Call quoted choice passages from it in a column Wednesday.
The e-mail says Rehberg and other members of the congressional delegation visiting Kazakhstan were drunk "the entire time" and also said Rehberg "made fun of the Kazakh national costume doing a 'Coneheads' routine from Saturday Night Live, over and over (including making beeping sounds like an alien) at an official delegation."
Rehberg denies the allegations of drunkeness and said he never mocked the Kazakh people. He also said he's never watched an entire episode of Saturday Night Live, and isn't familiar with the television show's skits.
"This (e-mail) is not true," Rehberg said in a phone interview. "I honestly, in the back of my mind, think this has to do something with my re-election effort. It just smacks of politics."
Rehberg's term in Congress expires at the end of this year and he is seeking re-election.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said Thursday his office received no report from the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan detailing such behavior, and independent reporting done by the Missoulian state and D.C. bureaus earlier this week did not turn up any evidence supporting the allegations in the anonymous e-mail.
"I saw him (that afternoon) and he was sober as a judge," said Tom Williams, a trip participant and vice president for Maurer Technology Inc. of Sugar Land, Texas. "I am positive. I will stake my life on it that he was 100 percent sober when he came in."
Other members of the Kazakhstan trip said they weren't with Rehberg much of the time, but during the time they were he was always polite.
The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, however, reported Wednesday that it "did verify that very much of what was said in the e-mail did happen, in some way, shape or form."
Rehberg admits he broke a rib and bruised two others, a diagnosis he said was confirmed by the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland when he sought treatment there May 31.
Rehberg recounted this week that he was the only member of the congressional delegation to go riding with a handful of locals for 45 minutes on the afternoon of Saturday, May 29. As he was dismounting at the end of the ride, Rehberg said, one of Kazakh riders took his reins from him in an attempt to be helpful.
When the Kazakh grabbed his reins, Rehberg said, he lost his balance, reached for a saddle horn that isn't present on the traditional Kazakh saddle, and found himself on the ground. That's when the Kazakh's horse stepped on his chest, injuring his ribs, Rehberg said.
He maintains that he was sober the entire time, and said he even caught grins from a gunnery sergeant who saw him surreptitiously dumping some of the local vodka on the ground before the ride. Rehberg, who said he never drinks hard liquor, said he had a total of three or four drinks during toasts before riding, but denies he drank the "some 20 shots of vodka" the anonymous e-mail claimed he downed.
"I never acquired a taste (for hard liquor)," Rehberg said. "I'm just not a fan of it."
However, one of the eyewitnesses to the riding mishap gave a different account of the afternoon.
"Well, I know he got bucked off after his ride got spooked," said U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., in a written statement Thursday. Burns was at the camp when Rehberg made his troubled dismount.
Rehberg's own chief of staff gave yet another account, in which the congressman fell while dismounting after another rider rode too close and scraped him out of the saddle, and Burns' press secretary, J.P. Donovan, said the accident happened in the evening after dinner. Rehberg repeatedly said the mishap occurred in the afternoon during traditional festivities held before dinner.
And Wednesday, Roll Call quoted Rehberg as saying he wasn't "comfortable" with the local Kazakh taking the reins of his horse, so he "fell back and sat down."
Rehberg and Burns both say the anonymous e-mail is politically motivated.
"I think it's political garbage," Burns wrote in his statement. "We had a couple of ceremonial toasts, just like any state dinner, and that's it. Someone's fishin' for dirt and they're not going to find it here."
Rehberg's chief of staff called the origin of the e-mail "suspect" and Rehberg said Thursday he's spending valuable time talking with reporters about the "ridiculous" e-mail.
Rehberg, who left for Kazakhstan with the congressional delegation May 25, was back in Washington, D.C., on May 31. His injuries require no further treatment, he said Thursday.