Come out swinging 

Missoula County Attorney's Office takes the fight to the DOJ

Moments before heading into a meeting with the Missoula County Commissioners last week, County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg smiled. He had waited nearly 20 months for the U.S. Department of Justice to announce whether it would file a lawsuit seeking to force his cooperation with an investigation into his office's handling of sexual assault cases. The federal government finally showed its hand last month, unveiling a proposal that, in exchange for Van Valkenburg's cooperation, would clear his office of legal wrongdoing.

After taking a peek at his opponents' cards, Van Valkenburg seemed anything but eager to settle. Rather, he readied for battle.

"It looks like they want a fight," Van Valkenburg told commissioners. "And I don't want to just roll over and give them what they want."

A looming uncertainty has hung over the county attorney's office since May 2012, when the DOJ made public its intention to investigate how Van Valkenburg's office, along with the Missoula Police Department and the University of Montana, handled a string of sexual assault allegations.

Last May, the DOJ found deficiencies in the university and MPD's responses to sexual assault, specifically noting that MPD "investigations are at times compromised by an investigator's unwarranted gender based assumptions and stereotypes about women."

In exchange for being cleared of legal wrongdoing, MPD and UM agreed to accept sweeping mandates governing how to police sex crimes in the future. Van Valkenburg, however, refused to cooperate, arguing that the DOJ has no authority over county prosecutors. He's also repeatedly warned that to allow federal scrutiny would set a dangerous precedent.

Van Valkenburg's tone was no less combative during last week's meeting, as he explained to commissioners why he felt his hand trumps that of the federal government.

"I have concluded that they don't have that authority," he said. "They have, as far as I know, no factual basis to be conducting an investigation—and certainly to be alleging that there has been a violation of constitutional rights."

The DOJ's settlement offer would mandate the county attorney's office hire at least two new staffers, an investigator and also a victim advocate. The prosecutor's office currently employs neither. Van Valkenburg estimates the expense of complying with the DOJ settlement, including the costs of hiring a consultant to oversee its implementation, would cost between $300,000 and $400,000 over a two-year period.

click to enlarge On the first day of his last year before retirement, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg announced he wanted to sue the U.S. Department of Justice. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • On the first day of his last year before retirement, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg announced he wanted to sue the U.S. Department of Justice.

Van Valkenburg told the commissioners with characteristic bluster that the issue is about more than just money. It's about principle. "If I had $10 million to spend like I felt like spending, I would say, 'No,'" he said.

The county attorney has authority to proceed against the DOJ as he sees fit. Commissioners, however, hold the checkbook. Van Valkenburg called last week's meeting to request $50,000 for legal fees, enabling him to hire a private attorney and take the federal government to court. He prefers taking the offensive rather than waiting to see whether the DOJ files a lawsuit.

Van Valkenburg predicted that taking initiative could end the controversy within six months. His pitch met with some skepticism from commissioners, however, with Michele Landquist asking if the $50,000 Van Valkenburg is requesting would be sufficient to fend off a deep-pocketed federal government. "That's not going to go very far," she said.

Landquist also asked whether victim rights advocates have expressed concerns about the county attorney's handling of sexual assault cases. In response, Van Valkenburg called upon Missoula County Senior Victim Rights Advocate Tanya Campbell and asked her to vouch for his attentiveness to victim needs.

Campbell said during the meeting and in a later interview with the Independent that the county attorney's office has been "fairly responsive, especially Fred" to victim concerns. As an example, Campbell noted that Van Valkenburg took over the 2012 rape prosecution of UM football player Beau Donaldson "because the victim was not very happy" with the prosecutor originally assigned to the case, she says.

Campbell also says that a recent decision by the county attorney to file sexual assault charges within a two-week window and increased efforts to communicate with law enforcement will go a long way toward alleviating the strain victims can feel when navigating the criminal justice system. "When you have a victim where there's been trauma, they need to get to a place where they can at least start exploring some sort of resolution," Campbell says.

Campbell calls the DOJ's agreements with MPD and UM "good things." But she stops short of welcoming federal oversight of the county attorney. "I think that those have made a difference," she says. "Whether that would be true with the county attorney's office or not, I can't say."

As for Van Valkenburg, he's eager to clear the slate before retiring at the end of this year. He's closing a four-decade career in public service and says he's ready to leave office with a clean record. "I don't really want to walk out the door on December 31 and have this matter still unresolved," he said.

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