By Shereen Siewert
A Wisconsin lawmaker who previously was convicted of operating while intoxicated in a crash that left him hospitalized for weeks was arrested a second time in 2018, an arrest he chose not to disclose to the public, Wausau Pilot & Review has learned.
Republican Pat Snyder, of Schofield, has frequently and candidly discussed his 2003 arrest, acknowledging his struggles with alcohol. But until now Snyder, 64, kept mum on his February 28, 2018 arrest in Weston, keeping the incident under wraps through two contentious election seasons.
Because the 2018 arrest was more than 10 years after his first OWI, the more recent charge is not listed in Wisconsin’s online court system as a criminal offense. Wisconsin treats first offense OWI as a traffic ticket, not a crime — the only state in the country to do so – and, from a court standpoint, Wisconsin treats a second arrest after 10 years as a first offense. That legal loophole allowed Snyder to keep the records out of the public eye.
Snyder, in an email to Wausau Pilot & Review on Monday, acknowledged the arrest and expressed his regret over the choices that led to his arrest.
“I was cited for driving under the influence two years ago,” Snyder wrote. “I am ashamed of this horrible offense, which let down my family and community. We all have issues we struggle with in life, mine is alcoholism. For years I have attended AA meetings, and after the 2018 incident, I immediately re-enrolled in counseling and began attending weekly meetings.
Details surrounding Snyder’s second arrest are not yet available. Though the arrest record and incident report are public record, Wisconsin law allows public figures five days to review such records before being released, Everest Metro Police Chief Clay Schultz said Monday.
When he was arrested in 2003, Snyder, then 46, had yet to enter the political fray. Instead, he was a radio talk show host on WSAU-AM (55). His crash, which happened in July 2003 after he left a west-side strip club, was widely publicized and made local headlines. When he returned to the airwaves after his hospitalization, Snyder spoke frankly on-air about the crash and promised listeners he would quit binge drinking, saying he would never drive drunk again.
Snyder entered politics in 2012, seeking to represent the 85th Assembly District in Wisconsin. When his first campaign was not successful, losing to Democrat Mandy Wright by about a 50 to 47 percent margin, Snyder joined the staff of then-U.S. Congressman Sean Duffy as outreach director. Wright lost the seat to Republican Dave Heaton in the 2014 election.
But in 2016, both Snyder and Wright would face off again after Heaton declined to seek a second term. During the campaign, Snyder was the target of attack ads that reminded voters of Snyder’s past OWI arrest. But those ads appeared to have backfired and Snyder ultimately defeated Wright by a 53 to 47 percent margin. He won again in 2018 against Democratic challenger Alyson Leahy, whose campaign was unaware of Snyder’s second OWI arrest that same year.
In the 2020 election, Snyder is being challenged by Democrat Jeff Johnson.
During a 2012 forum by Healthy Marathon County, Syder was one of several political figures who spoke movingly of personal experiences.
“I am an alcoholic,” Snyder said in 2012. “I wrecked my motorcycle, got a DUI, and then was in the hospital for the next two weeks with a broken arm and a broken leg.”
Snyder is not the only state lawmaker with at least one OWI on his record. Former State Rep. Josh Zepnick, a Milwaukee Democrat, was arrested for the offense in October of 2015 and later convicted. State Rep. Jason Fields, also a Milwaukee Democrat, has twice been convicted of OWI.
Snyder’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 3 election, former probation agent Jeff Johnson, said he hopes that Snyder has been and is getting the help he needs to deal with his addiction.
“I worked for decades with folks that had addiction issues and I have seen firsthand how it can affect not just the addict but those that love them as well,” Johnson said. ” I do wish him the best in his recovery.
“I do however have concerns about the public safety issue as drunk driving puts the general public at risk,” Johnson added. “Almost anyone can make one mistake but to get arrested for a second time indicates a disregard for the public that is unacceptable. I am also concerned that Representative Snyder failed to notify his constituents about his arrest. I believe that the public has to have trust in their elected officials and his failure to inform them undermines that trust.”
Snyder said his priority is to set a good example to constituents, but “sometimes I fall short.”
“As a state representative, I work hard every day to do what is right, help the constituents who I am honored to represent, and help our community grow,” Snyder told Wausau Pilot & Review. “Alcoholism is a lifelong disease that I continue to fight. That is why I advocate for more treatment for those with substance use disorders and tougher OWI laws, because I understand the importance of accountability and the value of access to resources for those that are struggling.”
Impaired driving kills thousands of people each year and elected officials are expected to set an example by policing themselves and follow the laws they vote to enact, say judges and legal scholars. Though the Legislature has repeatedly considered proposals to criminalize first-time OWI offenses, so far lawmakers have refused to do so.