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HELENA - Former Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson, a Republican candidate for the Public Service Commission, pleaded guilty Tuesday to drunken driving and said he's checking himself into a monthlong alcohol treatment program.

"It's time for me to get help with a problem that I haven't been able to deal with myself," he said Tuesday.

Johnson also said he has suspended his campaign for public service commissioner in District 5, which covers six counties that include Helena, Kalispell, Polson and the Rocky Mountain Front.

However, Johnson's name will still appear on the June 8 ballot against his primary opponent, fellow Republican Bill Gallagher of Helena.

Johnson, of East Helena, and Gallagher are vying for the Republican nomination to challenge Commissioner Ken Toole, D-Helena, who is running for re-election in District 5. The five-member PSC regulates utilities in Montana.

Johnson, 59, was pulled over May 20 on U.S. Highway 12 about 10 miles east of Helena, as he was driving from Bozeman to his home in East Helena. Authorities said Johnson's Breathalyzer test registered a blood-alcohol content of 0.24 percent, or three times the legal limit.

Johnson said last week he didn't believe he had violated any laws, but on Tuesday, he appeared in Broadwater County Justice Court and pleaded guilty to drunken driving.

Justice of the Peace Gary Olsen ordered Johnson to pay $585 in fines and court costs and take an alcohol-treatment course, and gave him a 10-day jail sentence that was suspended. Authorities said they expect to dismiss a charge of driving on the wrong side of the road.

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"I made a huge error in judgment May 20th," Johnson said in a statement. "I decided to drive from Bozeman to Helena while I was under the influence of alcohol. ... This has truly been a life-changing experience for me. I will take any and all steps necessary to assure that I never place myself in this situation again."

Johnson, who served as Montana's secretary of state from 2005-2008, said he had driven to Bozeman May 20 and went dancing with friends. He said he left Bozeman around 9 p.m. A Broadwater County sheriff's deputy pulled Johnson over on U.S. 12 about an hour later, in response to a citizen complaint about a possible drunken driver.

Johnson pleaded guilty to drunken driving "per se," which means he admitted to driving while his blood-alcohol content is above 0.08 percent. It carries a maximum sentence of 10 days in jail.

Prosecutors agreed to dismiss the slightly more severe offense of drunken driving, in which a driver is impaired by alcohol. It carries a more difficult burden of proof, a mandatory one-day jail term and a maximum jail sentence of six months.

Johnson is voluntarily enrolling himself in a 28-day, in-patient alcohol treatment program in Billings, beginning June 9. Olsen said the 28-day program is well beyond the required "assessment program" that drunken-driving offenders must take as part of a sentence.

Monthlong residential treatment programs can cost $10,000 to $12,000.

While Johnson is suspending his campaign for the PSC, he could still win the June 8 primary, for his name will appear on the ballot. If that happens, Johnson said he would decide later whether to withdraw as a candidate for the general election.

Should Johnson decide to withdraw after being nominated by Republican primary voters, party officials would still have time to name a replacement candidate against Toole.

 

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