Leighton accused of drunk driving

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 27, 2000

Austin lawmaker Rob Leighton was arrested early Wednesday morning after a night of drinking at a St.

Thursday, April 27, 2000

Austin lawmaker Rob Leighton was arrested early Wednesday morning after a night of drinking at a St. Paul bar. His attorney confirmed that Leighton’s blood-alcohol level was 0.23 percent – more than twice the legal limit.

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Leighton, 34, was not charged Wednesday. But the third-term lawmaker took to the House floor that afternoon to acknowledge the drunken driving accusation and apologize.

"I want you to know that I accept full responsibility for my actions and for my conduct, and I want to apologize for any embarrassment that I’ve caused to my family and to the House of Representatives," he said.

Witnesses told police a woman had been driving when the car hit two parked cars about 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, according to St. Paul police spokesman Michael Jordan. He said Leighton was stopped by police about 12:45 a.m. about a mile from the Capitol.

Jordan said the accident occurred near the intersection of Summit and Ramsey when the vehicle struck two parked cars and left the scene. When the vehicle matching the description of the hit-run was pulled over, Leighton was behind the wheel and Youngerman was bleeding from the nose, Jordan said.

Youngerman reportedly refused a breath test, while Leighton submitted to such a test and had a .23 blood-alcohol content, Jordan said. In Minnesota, someone found with a blood-alcohol level of .1 or more can be charged with driving under the influence. Leighton’s level was more than twice the legal limit when he was tested.

"We’re trying to obtain the facts in the matter," state Rep. Steve Sviggum (R-Kenyon), speaker of the House, said. "Members of our staff are trying to obtain that information.

"No ethics charges have been filed at this time," Sviggum said, adding that two members of the House would have to bring those charges in order for them to be heard.

"Obviously, it’s very embarrassing for Rep. Leighton, the representative’s family and the House," he said.

Sviggum also said the House does not take any misconduct of its members lightly and has a standing procedure for addressing such incidents. He also said assessment for possible treatment services are available through a state of Minnesota employee assistance plan available to legislators.

Leighton’s attorney, Paul Rogosheske, said his client decided to take over the wheel after Anna Youngerman, a 23-year-old woman who works for the state DFL party as a campaign aide, hit the cars and was injured. He said Leighton was driving to the hospital when he was pulled over. The woman cut her nose in the crash and received nine stitches at United Hospital, Rogosheske said.

Rogosheske disputed the two-hour time span between the report of the hit-and-run and when Leighton was stopped. He said Leighton might have been stopped much earlier and that police might have reported a later time, such as when the two were booked. St. Paul police said the accident occurred at 10:45 p.m. Tuesday and that Leighton was stopped at 12:45 a.m. Wednesday.

Rogosheske said Leighton drank too much at a St. Paul bar where legislative staffers and others were gathered, and that friends arranged for him to get a ride from the woman, who Rogosheske said was a friend of Leighton and his wife.

Police pulled Leighton over after noticing the heavy damage the car had sustained in the accident, Rogosheske said.

"Mr. Leighton will take full responsibility for his actions," he said. "He’s very sorry for overindulging in alcohol. It’s not something anyone would want to admit."

"My friend and colleague, Rob Leighton’s situation is a reminder that the inappropriate use of alcohol destroys our good sense and causes great harm," state Sen. Pat Piper (DFL-Austin), said.

"Rob has accepted full responsibility for his actions and will commit himself to regaining his balance and integrity," Piper said. "I know he is up front about disappointing others and about the seriousness of his situation."

"And I will be supportive, as others will be, as he works his way through a necessary treatment program," she said.

Leighton’s announcement in the Capitol on Wednesday caught Rep. Dan Dorman (R-Albert Lea), off-guard.

"I was surprised when Rep. Leighton got up and made the speech," Dorman said, adding that he thought about Leighton’s family immediately. "I think it’s a sad day for his family."

Dorman said he and several of his colleagues immediately went up to Leighton on the House floor to say that they were thinking of the lawmaker’s family.

"He made a mistake and he will have to face the consequences of that," Dorman added.

Attempts to reach Anna Youngerman at her St. Paul home were unsuccessful. She did not return calls to the Austin Daily Herald.

Leighton was involved with a scuffle in the summer of 1995.

According to Austin-Mower County Law Enforcement Center public record files, Leighton, then 30 years old, and Len Miller, a long-time friend, were at Torge’s Bar and Grille at Holiday Inn of Austin, when two Austin police officers responded to a fight call at 12:37 a.m. on Aug. 25, 1995.

Leighton, then a freshman member of the House, was found by police officers lying on his back outside the front lobby area to the Holiday Inn, bleeding from his mouth and unconscious.

A witness told police officers Leighton had been unconscious for two minutes before they arrived. Leighton’s injuries required medical attention, but were not serious, according to the police report.

Mower County Attorney Patrick Oman was given the Austin Police Department’s extensive report of the incident. Oman chose to have Fillmore County Attorney Robert R. Benson review the case for prosecution because of the possible appearance of a conflict of interest.

The Fillmore County attorney declined to commence prosecution after his investigation and a review of the case against Leighton or the other individual tentatively identified as the possible assailant of Leighton.

In a memorandum dated Nov. 20, 1995, Benson noted that he took "particular pains to scrutinize this case because Mr. Leighton is a government official."

He also observed he was willing to consider reversing his decision if other similar behavior occurred by either of the two individuals in the next two years.

Leighton was re-elected to the District 27B House seat in 1996 and 1998 and is a candidate for re-election to a fourth two-year term this year.

On Wednesday, Rogosheske said his client would undergo a chemical dependency evaluation.

Leighton did not return a message left at his Capitol office or his St. Paul home today.

Leighton posted $12,000 bail Wednesday morning and was released at 9:30 a.m. Because he is not in police custody, there is no set date by which he must be charged with the gross misdemeanor, St. Paul Assistant City Attorney Mike Seasly said.

But he added that the case would be "one of the most pressing" for the city to handle and that he expected charges to be filed within two weeks.

Rogosheske said a tentative court hearing has been set for May 9.

Youngerman, who owns the car, faces misdemeanor charges of refusing to take a breath test and leaving the scene of an accident. She was released on her own recognizance about 6:30 a.m., Seasly said.