Missoula County Attorney candidate Josh Van de Wetering recently stood in front of a group of Republicans inside a Doubletree Hotel meeting room and heard a variation of the question he’s been asked on nearly every stop of the campaign trail: How would he handle the U.S. Department of Justice’s claims that local prosecutors botched sex crime cases?
Van de Wetering told the group he’d prefer to negotiate a solution rather than pursue litigation. “I don’t see anything wrong with at least hearing what they have to say,” he added.
It comes as little surprise that the sexual assault issue is at the top of voters minds heading into the June 3 primary election. Since 2012, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office has been embroiled in a bitter feud with the DOJ over its handling of sexual assault prosecutions. Outgoing County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, who has held the position for 15 years, upped the stakes when he filed a lawsuit against the feds earlier this year, potentially leaving the mess for his successor. And with no Republican candidate running for office, that mess will fall to either Van de Wetering or his Democratic opponent, former Missoula County Chief Criminal Deputy Attorney Kirsten Pabst.
When arguing his qualifications, Van de Wetering touts his 10 years of experience working as an assistant U.S. attorney general and in private practice defending clients against federal charges. He says his time representing and facing off against the DOJ leaves him especially well equipped to steer the county out of Van Valkenburg’s lawsuit.
Van de Wetering, who currently runs a private practice in Missoula and teaches at the University of Montana School of Law, says he agrees with Van Valkenburg’s argument that the DOJ doesn’t have authority to investigate a county prosecutor’s office. But his knowledge of the deep-pocketed DOJ leaves him inclined to find an alternative to litigation.
“We’re looking at millions of dollars,” Van de Wetering explained to the group at the Doubletree.
Pabst has first-hand experience with the DOJ situation, which has led to both criticism from her opponent and praise from supporters. She worked for the Missoula County Attorney’s Office for 14 years, serving as chief deputy criminal attorney between 2006 and 2012, before going into private practice. While working as a defense attorney, she successfully represented University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson against rape charges. Van de Wetering, meanwhile, worked with prosecutors representing Johnson’s accuser.
Missoula County Chief Deputy Criminal Prosecutor Jen Clark, who has endorsed Van de Wetering, questions Pabst’s record since leaving Van Valkenburg’s office. In a letter published last week in the Missoulian, Clark said Pabst’s recent work makes her too much of a lightning rod to steer the office forward.
“As a defense attorney, Pabst unnecessarily harmed relationships essential for a county attorney to be effective, particularly in the area of sexual assault,” Clark wrote. “She engaged in concerning tactics and personal attacks on individuals and agencies.”
Van de Wetering notes further that Pabst led the attorney’s office criminal division during the period that the DOJ is alleging problems occurred.
Pabst addresses the implications and accusations directly, saying she tried to address prosecutorial failings. She says she specifically lobbied Van Valkenburg to hire additional staff capable of bolstering communication with victims and an investigator to build stronger cases, but was told there wasn’t enough money.
In fact, Pabst says her desire to fix those problems prompted her to assist in the DOJ’s investigation of the attorney’s office shortly after leaving her post. She says the DOJ incorporated several of her suggestions into its findings.
“I was the only prosecutor that cooperated,” Pabst says.
Like her opponent, Pabst believes there’s a way to move past the lawsuit and improve sex crime prosecutions without handing over control to the federal government. For instance, in addition to hiring new staff, she says a new policy manual to guide attorneys working on sexual assault cases would go a long way toward clarifying expectations for prosecutors and the public.
While the DOJ situation has dominated the race, both Pabst and Van de Wetering have tried to speak to other aspects of the county attorney position. Van de Wetering aims to crack down on prescription drug abuse and victimization of the elderly, who he says are especially vulnerable to Internet scams.
Pabst has spoken about ending the county’s tendency to bully business owners with overzealous regulation. Her stance earned an endorsement from Dunrovin Ranch owners Sterling and SuzAnne Miller, who were caught in a high-profile battle with the county that threatened to shut them down. Last month, District Court Judge Ed McLean sided with the Millers in a lawsuit filed by the attorney’s office, saying he found the county “harassed this business.”
Pabst says she’s heard too many stories like the Millers’ and they typify the ongoing problems that, if elected, she’d aim to fix.
“Under the current administration, there seems to be this win-at-all-costs approach to solving problems,” Pabst says. “(County attorneys) then tend to dump unlimited resources into not solving the problem, but proving a point, or proving that we’re right. And that needs to change.”