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Barkus to plead no contest to felony criminal endangerment in Flathead boat crash

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Flathead boat crash

Investigators from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks look over the scene on Aug. 28, 2009, of a boat involved in a crash at Wayfarers State Park. Rep. Denny Rehberg badly broke an ankle in the accident. By VINCE DEVLIN/Missoulian

KALISPELL - A plea deal calling for a three-year deferred sentence has been reached in the criminal case of state Sen. Greg Barkus, who is charged with three felonies for smashing his powerboat into a rocky shoreline along Flathead Lake, allegedly while drunk.

Under the agreement, Barkus would plead no contest to a felony count of criminal endangerment, and in exchange for his plea prosecutors would dismiss two felony counts of negligent vehicular assault.

With a plea of no contest, a defendant neither admits nor disputes a charge. A no contest plea has the same effect as a guilty plea, however, and is often offered as part of a plea deal.

Prosecutors say Barkus' blood-alcohol content registered twice the legal driving limit, at 0.16, when sampled nearly two hours after the nighttime boating accident on Aug. 27, 2009. Barkus and his four passengers were injured in the wreck, including U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg.

Rehberg's former state director, Dustin Frost, was in a coma for more than a week after the accident, while Barkus' wife, Kathy, and Rehberg's deputy chief of staff, Kristin Smith, both were injured.

If the Kalispell Republican successfully completes the three-year deferred imposition of sentence, without any legal violations during the term, the felony conviction would be expunged from his record.

Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan will not object to Barkus serving out his sentence on unsupervised probation, according to the agreement, which was filed late Tuesday in Flathead County District Court. The conditions of his probation will be hashed out at sentencing, and could include a prohibition on alcohol and bars.

If there are no conditional violations, Corrigan also will not object to ending the sentence after one-half of the term is served, though Barkus must file a motion for such an exception.

Barkus would not serve any prison time under the proposed agreement, but would be required to pay $4,000 in restitution to the state of Montana.

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Kalispell attorney Todd Glazier filed a motion Tuesday requesting that a Nov. 29 trial date be vacated and that a change-of-plea hearing be scheduled for the week of Nov. 22.

"He is getting ready to put this behind him and he is very happy that the victims have all recovered and that everybody is doing OK," Glazier said of Barkus.

The attorney rejected murmurings that Barkus was receiving special treatment through the plea agreement, and said the negotiations would have been handled similarly in the case of almost any first-time felony offender.

"This is a standard deal. Anybody that has been charged with their first felony is allowed a deferment under the statute. It's not some conspiracy he's getting away with," Glazier said.

Paul Ryan, a criminal defense attorney in Missoula, said the proposed sentence is consistent with similar cases he's defended, particularly when the victims are forgiving.

"It's certainly in the realm of reasonable," Ryan said. "It's not out of the ordinary in that it's overly harsh, and it's not out of the ordinary in that it's overly easy. It's probably a good middle ground for a guy that's a first time offender, and in a case where the victims are not upset or ready to pounce on him."

In many criminal cases, Ryan said, the victims have the power to influence the outcome, and the severity of a sentence hinges on their recommendations.

"A lot of times the victims really drive it," Ryan said. "If they are known victims, family or friends, the chance of a sentence more favorable to the defendant is higher. I'd say the sentence seems right on point for the circumstances."

Glazier, Barkus and Corrigan all signed the plea agreement, though the sentencing judge, John McKeon of Malta, has ultimate authority and can either accept or reject the plea deal at the sentencing hearing.

As of Wednesday afternoon, McKeon had not yet scheduled a change-of-plea hearing or set a date for sentencing. However, if the judge decides not to follow the agreement at sentencing Barkus can withdraw his plea and proceed to trial.

The maximum penalty for criminal endangerment is 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. Each of the assault charges carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 260-4197 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

 

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