Asleep At The Wheel

David Wu totaled a parked car in 2010 and blamed it on his hectic travel schedule.

U.S. Rep. David Wu crashed his car into a Ford Focus parked on a residential street in Portland's Forest Heights neighborhood last year, WW has learned.

One witness says the Democratic congressman smelled of alcohol. That witness and a second one say Wu appeared impaired. A recording of their 911 call reveals the congressman asked them not to call police, although the force of the crash damaged the Ford Focus so severely it had to be towed from the scene. Wu, in a statement Tuesday, said alcohol was not involved.

While this development took place more than a year ago, it adds one more piece to the puzzle of recent reports about Wu's odd behavior in the months before he won re-election last November in Oregon's 1st Congressional District. 

As WW first reported in February, the seven-term lawmaker's behavior grew so erratic in the final week before the November election, staffers twice tried to stage psychiatric interventions with Wu (see "Strange Wu," Feb. 23, and "Wu's World," March 2). WW's reports followed a Jan. 19 account by The Oregonian about the departure of several high-level staffers from Wu's offices after the election.

In recent weeks, Wu has confirmed many details of those news stories, and in an effort to exercise damage control, has apologized for not being at his "best." He says he stopped drinking in July 2010 for five months, but did so to lose weight. In response to direct questions about drug use, he has said he took prescription painkillers and other medicine to cope with neck pain and the effects of a strained marriage, which ultimately ended in a separation from his second wife. He also blamed a tough re-election campaign for his troubles. Finally, Wu has said he suffers from a genetic condition that causes him to react poorly to certain combinations of prescribed drugs.

In the wake of these troubling admissions, several Oregon newspapers, including the (Eugene) Register-Guard and The Oregonian, have either called for Wu's resignation or strongly suggested he not run again.

The revelation of this 2010 car accident is sure to open Wu up to even more questions.

On Feb. 19, 2010, Karen Fog was inside her Forest Heights home with her friend Barbara Tymer when, just after 9 pm, the two heard a loud crash. They went outside on that cold, clear night to find a car had plowed into the front of Tymer's blue, 2007 Ford Focus, which was parked on the opposite side of the street from Fog's house.

They also found Wu standing at the scene, next to his rented 2009 Dodge Charger, which had apparently crossed from the right side of the street to the left to collide head-on with Tymer's parked Ford. The women say they did not recognize Wu and that it was only later that Tymer realized he was a congressman. (She thinks she realized this when she called Wu to follow up with insurance paperwork and discovered he'd given her the phone number of his Portland congressional office.)

That night Tymer asked Wu, who was alone, whether he was OK. He told her he was fine. But Tymer told WW he smelled of alcohol.

"He didn't seem like he was raging drunk or anything," Tymer says. "He was in shock."

Fog called police and, according to a 911 tape WW obtained through a public-records request (listen to that tape at the link at the top of the story), requested officer assistance. "I'm assuming that there's some kind of disability, if he was driving on the wrong side of the street," Fog told the dispatcher from her home. "He says he fell asleep. I don't believe him."

A form from Wu's insurance company shows a payment of $7,062.30 to Tymer for her wrecked car. Another $5,000 went to the lien holder, meaning Wu's insurance paid out the full value of the car.

"He did not want us to call the police," Fog told the dispatcher. (Asked to respond to this, Wu's office declined.)

After Fog called 911, two Portland police officers arrived at the scene. Officer Jason Worthington helped the two parties exchange information for insurance purposes. Officer Brian Hunzeker performed a field sobriety test, which Wu passed. He says he detected no odor of alcohol. Neither Worthington nor Hunzeker is a state-certified drug recognition expert. There was no Breathalyzer test.

Tymer says Wu told Portland police he had fallen asleep at the wheel. A police spokesman confirms this account. "There's no indication that it was anything other than fatigue," says Sgt. Peter Simpson, the spokesman.

But Tymer says she thought Wu's claim that he had fallen asleep was implausible. Based on the direction Wu was traveling, he probably would have had to make at least two tight turns just seconds before the crash.

"How could you navigate up to that point and then supposedly fall asleep?" Tymer wondered aloud.

Tymer says Wu admitted to police he had consumed wine earlier that Friday evening but that he was tired from his hectic back-and-forth travel between Washington, D.C., and Oregon. A local news story about Wu, however, reported he had been in Oregon for at least one day before the crash: He toured a fire station in Hillsboro on Thursday, Feb. 18.

So, where was Wu going? And where was he coming from that Friday night? Wu would not answer. 

But the home of Stuart Cohen, Wu's former law partner and close friend, is just a few blocks away from Fog's, and Wu was driving in the direction of Cohen's home at the time of the crash. Wu also listed Cohen's address as his own when police asked the congressman for his personal information. Cohen did not return a call from WW.

A spokesman for Wu says the congressman volunteered for the sobriety test, followed appropriate insurance procedures and was not cited after he "briefly lost control of his vehicle.” 

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