By Del Quentin Wilber and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 6, 2006
Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy said yesterday that he is entering treatment for an addiction to prescription medications, an announcement that comes as police continue their investigation into a car crash involving the congressman near the Capitol.
Calling his addiction a "chronic disease," Kennedy said he does not even recall the accident, which occurred early Thursday and raised questions about his behavior and how U.S. Capitol Police deal with members of Congress.
The congressman's office has said Kennedy (D-R.I.) was disoriented behind the wheel because he had taken prescription medication to calm stomach inflammation and to help him sleep. No one was injured in the crash, but Kennedy almost hit a Capitol Police car head-on before slamming into a security barrier, authorities said.
Kennedy, 38, said yesterday that he has been battling problems with addiction and depression since he was a young man and that he will seek immediate treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He was a patient there during Congress's winter break, he said, and thought he had returned to Washington "reinvigorated and healthy."
"I am deeply concerned about my reaction to the medication and my lack of knowledge of the accident that evening," he said during a brief news conference at the Capitol. "But I do know enough that I know I need help."
Kennedy did not answer questions at the news conference or address a controversy surrounding the Capitol Police department's handling of the matter. The union representing Capitol Police officers has said that Kennedy should have been given a sobriety test because officers at the scene suspected he had been drinking. The union suggested that Kennedy got special treatment because supervisors took over and drove him home.
Acting Capitol Police Chief Christopher M. McGaffin declined requests for comment yesterday. He told Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress, that managers had made mistakes in judgment and that "significant" administrative action has been taken.
The news conference was Kennedy's first public appearance since he crashed his green 1997 Ford Mustang convertible about 2:50 a.m. Thursday into the security barrier at First and C streets SE. New details emerged in a police report made public yesterday.
Before the crash, an officer saw the Mustang speeding through a construction zone and swerving into and traveling in the wrong lane of traffic, the report said. The car's lights were off, and the Mustang almost hit a police car before it smacked into the barrier.
In the report, an officer noted that Kennedy's eyes were "watery, speech was slightly slurred . . . and his balance was unsure."
Kennedy told the officer that he was "headed to the Capitol to make a vote," the report said. The House was not in session at the time.
Although the report includes a notation that alcohol played a role in the crash, police union officials said that supervisors did not allow officers to administer field sobriety or breathalyzer tests.
Kennedy, the son of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and a scion of one of the country's most prominent political families, was not charged with any crimes but received three traffic citations: failure to keep in the proper lane, driving at an unreasonable speed and failure to give full time and attention to his car. Police said they are contemplating other charges.
Kennedy's office issued a statement Thursday night that said he was on prescription drugs and had not consumed alcohol before the crash. Under D.C. law, people who take prescription medications that hamper their driving can be charged with driving under the influence. The charge carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and a $300 fine for a first offense.
Within hours of the accident, union officials had written a letter to the Capitol Police chief that criticized the supervisors' decision to forgo sobriety tests.
The actions called "the integrity of our organization into question by creating the appearance of special favor for someone who is perceived to be privileged and powerful," wrote Officer Gregrey H. Baird, acting chairman of the Capitol Police labor committee for the D.C. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1.
Former chief Terrance W. Gainer, who left the force last month, agreed that sobriety tests should have been performed. "It appears there was a mistake made by police and by command officials, not the troops," he said.
Gainer said he understood that McGaffin was not immediately told about the crash. He said a lieutenant in the command center has been reassigned.
Authorities are trying to track Kennedy's activities before the accident. Detectives were canvassing bars near the Capitol to determine whether he had been spotted in them in the hours leading up to the crash, law enforcement sources said.
For his part, Kennedy said the accident "concerns me greatly." He has said that he returned Wednesday night to his home on Capitol Hill, took the medications and inexplicably wound up driving to the Capitol in the belief that he needed to vote.
"I simply do not remember getting out of bed, being pulled over by the police or being cited for three driving infractions," he said. "That's not how I want to live my life, and it's not how I want to represent the people of Rhode Island."
Kennedy has been taking Ambien, a sleeping medication, his office said. Then, on Tuesday, he caught a stomach virus and visited a doctor in the Capitol who prescribed Phenergan to ease inflammation.
Each drug can cause confusion and poor coordination, with the effects heightened when taken together. The drugs in combination can also cause memory loss.
Kennedy said the "recurrence of an addiction problem can be triggered by things that happen in everyday life, such as taking the common [medication] for a stomach flu. It's not an excuse for what happened . . . but it is a reality of fighting a chronic condition for which I am taking full responsibility."
Lou Cannon, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, said Kennedy did "the stand-up thing" by admitting his addiction and seeking treatment.
The episode follows another incident involving Capitol police and a member of Congress. In March, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) got into a scuffle with an officer as she tried to bypass a metal detector.
Police asked prosecutors to charge McKinney with assault, and a grand jury is investigating the case.
Staff writers Karlyn Barker, David Brown and Shailagh Murray and news researchers Rena Kirsch, Bob Lyford and Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.