By David Callender - The Capital Times
MADISON - Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager says she violated the cardinal rule she's tried to instill in all of her children: If you take
even one drink of alcohol, leave the driving to someone else.
"We have always told our children that if they are going to consume alcohol, the last thing in the world they should do is get behind the wheel of a car," Lautenschlager told The Capital Times.
Lautenschlager said she decided to get behind the wheel of her state-owned car last Monday after having drinks with friends in Madison because she wanted to go home to Fond du Lac so she could get to a press conference in Green Bay early the next morning.
Instead of making it to her destination, Lautenschlager ended up in a ditch near Columbus, where she was arrested for drunken driving. The state's top law enforcement official pleaded guilty last week to driving while intoxicated and refusing to take a blood test, gave up her driver's license for a year, and this week voluntarily forfeited 10 days' salary for misusing a state car.
For the first time since her Feb. 23 arrest, Lautenschlager agreed to answer questions Wednesday during an interview at her Capitol office. (She left Thursday on what an aide called a "long-planned" vacation to Ireland, and will return Wednesday.)
In the interview she offered new details about the events that led up to the Monday night incident, including that she:
n Had only a bowl of soup for lunch and no dinner when she went out with friends for drinks at the Public House in downtown Madison.
n Forgot that she had taken a muscle relaxant earlier in the day for her bad back, even though a label on the medicine warned that it could heighten the effects of alcohol.
n Decided after she went out to drive home to Fond du Lac that night instead of staying at her apartment in Madison because she had a press conference in Green Bay to announce a major drug bust the following morning.
n Did not feel impaired while she was driving, although other drivers told police that she was driving erratically, at one point reportedly going just 30 mph in a 65 mph zone.
n Fell asleep at the wheel and woke up only when her car went into the ditch.
But Lautenschlager left unanswered questions about why she refused a required blood test or how many drinks she actually consumed.
Experts have indicated it would be difficult for her to have a blood alcohol level of 0.12 percent - as measured by a preliminary breath test not admissible in court - after consuming just two glasses of wine at least two hours before her arrest, as she told police.
Nor would she recount the individual choices she made that led to her decision to drive drunk.
"People do things for all sorts of reasons, and I don't know that one can really dissect that," she said. "I think the important thing is that I made the wrong decision. The issue isn't why I made the decision; the issue is that I made the decision."
She also declined to say whether she has a problem with alcohol or other drugs, saying that she would leave that determination to a court-ordered assessment as part of her sentence. She said that while she depends on asthma medications daily to "keep me alive," she takes "probably 20 Flexerils in a year," referring to the muscle relaxant she used on the day of her arrest.
And while she declined to say whether she would permanently give up drinking in public, she said, "I don't feel inclined to drink at all right now, frankly."
Instead, Lautenschlager spoke about the high toll the incident has taken on her, her family and friends and her desire to try to set things right after what she has described as a "horrible mistake."
The former federal prosecutor and district attorney said the experience of undergoing field sobriety tests, being put in handcuffs and placed in the back of a police car was "very difficult" and left her feeling "embarrassed and very stressed."
She said numerous thoughts ran through her head.
"My biggest concern that evening was the need to talk with my spouse, my children, and my parents about what had happened and apologize to them. My husband was called by the (Dodge County) Sheriff's Department deputy and I talked with him when he picked me up," she said.
On the way home, "I used my cell phone ... to call our boys, who are in college, and my stepson, who is a sheriff's deputy, and let my 13-year-old daughter sleep until the morning. And I talked to my parents the first thing in the morning."
One of the hardest conversations was with her daughter the next morning, Lautenschlager said.
"I told her her mom had made a very big mistake and that she would hear about it at school and I was sorry I had made a wrong choice that night. And I told her that the lectures I'd given her brothers about drinking and driving I hadn't taken to heart. And I apologized to her for whatever embarrassment she might have at school," she said.
It was equally difficult for her to compose an e-mail to Justice Department staff, she said. In that e-mail, Lautenschlager said that she "drove off the road and was subsequently cited for operating a vehicle while intoxicated," but also said she would "accept the consequences of and will take responsibility for my actions."
Since her arrest, Lautenschlager said she has "been humbled by an incredible number of calls, letters, and e-mails from colleagues in law enforcement telling me to hang in there and to continue to do my job. I have received communications from Democratic and Republican sheriffs and DAs, from police chiefs and police officers, and the vast majority of them have been expressions of support. And I've been heartened and encouraged by it."
At the same time, she has come under fire from some quarters. Some individual members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving have called on her to resign, although the organization as a whole has not taken a position. Lautenschlager said she understood the members' anger, but hopes to win their trust.
"I can't imagine losing a family member to someone who made the choice to drive drunk. I know how precious my own children are and I can't imagine a parent suffering through the loss of a child for whatever reason. I have acknowledged my wrongdoing and have accepted a penalty that is the greatest that can be imposed on me," she said.
"Hopefully, those folks will understand that I might be able to utilize my actions of last Monday for the benefit of those causes which attempt to educate the public about the dangers of drinking and driving."
She said her office has been flooded with invitations from groups that want to put her to work in combating drunken driving.
"Right now, the issue isn't a question of not wanting to do anything but sorting out what's there and how much we can do, given how many hours there are in a day," she said.
Lautenschlager said she is open to recording a public service announcement urging others not to repeat her mistake. But she ruled out fund-raising for any groups, saying that it could give the appearance that her office favors some organizations and not others.