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Kennedy pleads guilty in crash


WASHINGTON -- Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat, pleaded guilty yesterday to a charge of driving under the influence of prescription drugs in a plea bargain with prosecutors stemming from a middle-of-the-night incident last month in which he nearly sideswiped a police cruiser.

District of Columbia Superior Court Magistrate Judge Aida Melendez placed the six-term congressman on supervised probation for a year. He was ordered to attend weekly meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, confer regularly with a psychiatrist, submit to random urine tests and contribute $100 to a crime victims fund and $250 to the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington, where he will also do 50 hours of community service.

If Kennedy violates the terms of his probation, she added, he will go to jail for 10 days and pay a fine.

"I've always said I wanted to take full responsibility for my actions and today in court I did just that," Kennedy said after his sentence was announced. "I accepted the consequences of my actions. I'm grateful to be on the road to recovery."

Standing at Kennedy's side as he talked to reporters on the courthouse steps was not his father - Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts - but a Republican colleague from Minnesota who is himself a recovering alcoholic.

"As a grateful recovering alcoholic of 25 years, I'm pleased to be his sponsor," said Rep. Jim Ramstad. "He's accepted his addiction and he's going to be just fine, one day at a time."

Kennedy, 38, has said he has struggled with depression and drug addiction since he was a teenager. He was treated for cocaine abuse after graduating from high school.

The incident that led to his courtroom appearance yesterday began at 2:47 a.m. on May 4, when Kennedy crashed his green 1997 Ford Mustang convertible into a security barrier on Capitol Hill. According to a report filed by the Capitol Police, he stumbled from the car, telling officers that he was rushing to make a vote. The House had adjourned three hours earlier and the last vote on May 3 was cast at 9:06 p.m.

The police report described Kennedy as "unsteady on his feet," with "slightly slurred speech" and "red and watery" eyes.

Later that day, Kennedy released a statement insisting that he had consumed no alcohol but acknowledging that he had taken two prescription medications, Ambien for sleeplessness and Phenergan for a stomach inflammation. The next day, he called a news conference to say that he was checking himself into the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to treat an addiction to prescription drugs.

Kennedy stayed in Minnesota for 28 days, and Ramstad visited every Saturday, accompanying him to recovery meetings. Ramstad, who quit drinking 25 years ago after he woke up from an alcoholic blackout in a jail cell in Sioux Falls, S.D., will get a weekly call from Kennedy under the terms of probation.

For Kennedy, the denouement on the courthouse steps was the result of a plea deal in which prosecutors dropped charges of reckless driving and driving without exhibiting a permit.

Kennedy, who despite his troubles is considered a safe bet for re-election in his Democratic district, has said the accident was also a wake-up call.

"Every day I'm on my knees thanking God that I didn't hurt somebody," he said last month.

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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