MISSOULA - One of U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg's political challengers took aim Thursday at the five-term Republican, calling his involvement in a Flathead Lake boat crash that seriously injured Rehberg and four other people "irresponsible."
Rancher Dennis McDonald, who chairs the Montana Democratic Party and in March announced that he'll run against Rehberg, said the congressman and state Sen. Greg Barkus, who was driving the boat, showed poor judgment and should not have been drinking before driving across the lake at night.
At no point was Rehberg operating the powerboat.
McDonald also called for more transparency surrounding a criminal investigation into the events leading up to the crash, which occurred about 10:20 p.m. on Aug. 27 on the rocky shoreline at Wayfarers State Park.
Rehberg's state director, 27-year-old Dustin Frost, suffered a severe head injury in the wreck. He was released from the hospital last week. Also injured were Rehberg; Barkus, of Kalispell; his wife, Kathy Barkus; and Kristin Smith, the congressman's deputy chief of staff.
Law enforcement said Barkus was likely drinking on the night of the wreck, and Rehberg's blood alcohol level registered at .05 percent several hours after the boat ran head-first into the steep shoreline.
McDonald rebuked the politicians for making what he called a series of bad decisions that could easily have killed someone.
"As the employer of young staffers, you have an obligation to make good decisions. Here we have two professional politicians who decided to consume alcohol and then made the decision to get on a boat in the dark of night, late at night, and drive that boat across the north end of Flathead Lake at 40 miles per hour. That is poor judgment. And to do so after you've been drinking, in my view, is just irresponsible," McDonald said in a telephone interview on Thursday. "They've been around long enough. They should have known better."
Tyler Matthews, Rehberg's campaign manager, said McDonald's statements were mere political posturing, and he criticized the candidate for using a tragedy as a political opportunity.
"While the heroic response from strangers and first responders after the crash embodied the best qualities of our state, using this accident to score political points is the ugliest part of the politics of personal destruction," Matthews said. "This was a tragic accident, in which real people were hurt. And it is the health and welfare of these people who are still recovering that are ever-present on Denny's mind, not Dennis McDonald's shameless attempt to use this tragic accident to breathe life into his campaign that is faltering because of these types of endless, harsh and negative attacks."
Jed Link, Rehberg's director of communications, said the staff is happy that Frost is recovering. "Right now, we're focused on all of the good news regarding Dustin's recovery," Link said. "We're all rooting for him."
No criminal charges have been filed in the case, while an investigative subpoena for Barkus' medical records was sealed by a court. The results of a blood sample to determine how much alcohol the state senator consumed have not been made public.
McDonald, 65, raises cattle and horses on a ranch in Sweet Grass County, and said he's spoken with numerous Montanans who are frustrated with the plodding investigation, which has lasted almost a month. In that time, virtually no information has been released publicly by law enforcement.
"The bits and dribbles we do get are from Rehberg's spokesmen rather than law enforcement, despite this being nearly a month post-accident," McDonald said. "It's just unbelievable to me that this has been able to go on as long as it has. As I'm traveling across the state, I hear Montanans everywhere talking about a cover-up. They're talking about how this investigation is being handled and the lack of transparency."
The silence is due in part to a Flathead County district judge's order sealing records of the investigation, a decision that keeps an investigative subpoena for Barkus' medical records confidential "unless and until charges are filed."
It's a legal move that is applicable under state law - investigative subpoenas are confidential under a secrecy provision - but that law may conflict with Montana's constitutional open-records requirements, a public records expert said recently.
Soon after the order, all three district judges in Flathead County recused themselves from presiding over the investigative file, and will likely remove themselves from a criminal case if charges are filed.
"It's strange," McDonald said. "Recently we've had three judges remove themselves from the case, and I applaud that decision. I think it's the right thing to do. But that was done only after an order was issued to keep information secret from Montanans that, under our state constitution, we have a right to know."
The judge's order, which was in response to a legal motion submitted under seal by Barkus' attorney, also precludes the Flathead County attorney and the sheriff from discussing details of the case unless charges are filed.