Former congressman Sweeney admits DWI, to get probation, jail time

Former U.S. Rep. John E. Sweeney pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor driving while intoxicated charge Fr

Former U.S. Rep. John E. Sweeney pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor driving while intoxicated charge Friday in Saratoga County Court.

He originally was indicted on a felony charge on the April incident in Clifton Park.

Under an agreed-on sentence, the former 20th Congressional District representative will spend 30 days in jail and three years on supervised probation.

The first 12 months of probation will include monitoring with an electronic device that can detect any alcohol consumption.

Sweeney will also be without his driver’s license until 2013 and will be forbidden to drive. During the probation period, his vehicle will be required to have an ignition interlock system so the car will not start if the driver has consumed alcohol, as a further precaution against him driving while impaired.

Sweeney also must perform 300 hours of pro bono legal work or other community service. He continues to hold his law license.

Financial penalties include a $1,000 fine, a $395 court surcharge and a driver responsibility assessment of $250 a year for three years.

Sentencing was set for April 23, pending the court’s receipt and review of a probation report.

Sweeney, 54, of Clifton Park, admitted to driving while intoxicated on April 5, 2009, in Clifton Park. He was originally charged with felony DWI because he had also been convicted of misdemeanor DWI in Clifton Park Town Court in 2007.

A grand jury indicted Sweeney on the felony charge last August. Prior to Friday’s plea, a March trial date had been set.

Sweeney, once a rising star on the state and national Republican scene, served in Congress from 1999 to 2007, when he was defeated in his bid for re-election by Kirstin Gillibrand, now a senator.

Since his arrest, Sweeney has gone through treatment for alcohol dependence.

“I am currently clean and sober, and I expect to be clean and sober for the rest of my life,” Sweeney said during the court proceeding.

Sweeney’s lawyer, prominent defense attorney E. Stewart Jones of Troy, said the defense’s goal had always been to get a misdemeanor plea deal.

“We’re grateful for the opportunity to reduce this to a misdemeanor. It has been our goal from the beginning,” Jones said.

Acting Saratoga County Court Judge Guy P. Tomlinson said he agreed to accept the misdemeanor plea because Sweeney has no arrest history other than his earlier DWI.

Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne served as special prosecutor because Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III had recently prosecuted a relative of Tomlinson’s and disqualified himself.

Champagne said he insisted that Sweeney wear a 24-hour Scram-x alcohol monitor for a year because so many judges disqualified themselves from hearing the case that conventional drug court monitoring was impractical.

Sweeney will pay the estimated $4,000 cost of the device.

“It’s a way for us to have accountability that we wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have,” he said after the court proceeding.

Champagne said Sweeney’s lack of criminal history also factored into the prosecution’s acceptance of a misdemeanor settlement.

“Over a 30-year period, he’s only been in trouble with the law twice,” Champagne said.

State police stopped Sweeney in his 2004 BMW on Route 9 in Clifton Park about 3:30 a.m. on April 5, 2009, in what Tomlinson said initially appeared to be an ordinary speeding stop. Sweeney’s car was tracked at 59 mph in a 40 mph zone, according to the police report.

But troopers suspected Sweeney was intoxicated, and Sweeney refused to take a sobriety test.

Under oath Friday, Sweeney admitted he was drunk.

“I’d been out for a couple of hours voluntarily consuming alcoholic beverages and I was on my way home,” he said.

After the arrest, Sweeney entered a treatment program, and had the case adjourned several times while he was in treatment.

“I’m currently living one day at a time in a 12-step program,” Sweeney said after the proceeding, referring to a treatment program first popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Tomlinson, a Montgomery County judge who was assigned to the case, said he hopes Sweeney can be a productive member of society.

“The rules are no drinking, no driving, and work,” he said.

Tomlinson said Sweeney might be able to apply to get his license back early, but only with the court’s permission.

A Department of Motor Vehicles administrative judge last year had suspended Sweeney’s license through 2011 because of the failure to take the sobriety test.

Sweeney served as Rensselaer County’s STOP-DWI coordinator from 1982 to 1992. During his last years in Congress there were reports of erratic behavior, and just before the 2007 election a report surfaced about state police responding to a domestic violence complaint at his home, though no charges came of it.

Sweeney remains free on $2,000 bail. Tomlinson told him to be ready to go to jail immediately after his sentencing.

Categories: Schenectady County

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