Shame on U 

It's not just about rape anymore

It's good news that 22 states and the District of Columbia have signed onto Montana's challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that gave corporations and Super PACs the same rights as human beings in regard to campaign spending. It's a long shot that the court will reverse itself, but it's certainly worth the fight to try and preserve Montana's century-old Anti-Corruption Act. Still, when it comes to corruption, we can look a lot closer to home than D.C., as Missoula officials and personnel in the highest echelons of the University of Montana are exposed for their attempts to downplay alleged rapes.

Three weeks ago, when writing on the issue of how certain politicians and public figures selectively "fight for Montanans," this column addressed the announcement that both the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Department of Education had launched investigations into numerous rapes that have plagued Missoula in the last few years. That column applauded UM President Royce Engstrom, Missoula Mayor John Engen and Missoula Chief of Police Mark Muir for their pledge to fully cooperate with the investigations.

But in details revealed in a great and shocking series of articles by Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio last weekend, it becomes clear that Engstrom and Engen as well as UM Vice President Jim Foley went out of their way to cover up rape charges and ignore or intimidate alleged rape victims while protecting UM's football players and now-shattered reputation.

The emails Florio received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request tell the tale in no uncertain terms. Take, for instance, the email exchange between Foley and now-retired Dean of Students Charles Couture in March, concerning a student who said she'd been assaulted and wasn't satisfied with the university's response. In a classic case of blaming the victim, Foley inquires if it's "not a violation of the student code of conduct for the woman to be publicly talking about the process and providing details about the conclusion?" He also tries to stop use of the term "gang rape" and asks, "Can anybody tell me where UM has used the terms 'gang rape' and 'football players' in any public document that the Missoulian would be referencing?"

Couture responded to Foley, saying he used the term in reference to four UM football players and an accomplice accused of gang-raping a woman "because that is what it was." But for Foley and his willing gang of co-conspirators, including Engstrom, "date rape" was seen as a more acceptable term to use in the media.

The cover-up got so bad that an off-duty Missoula police officer, Geoff Curtis, emailed UM's administrators, saying, "I am writing to urge you all to stop this spiraling PR mess and take action instead of trying to defend your actions."

And what did Officer Curtis get in return for his excellent advice to UM's top dogs? He got pounced on by Foley and reprimanded by Engen, who sent an email to Foley, Engstrom and Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir saying, "You also have my apologies." Apologies for what? Because a good cop told the truth? Engen went on to ensure UM's cover-up cabal that "Officer Curtis will be requesting a moment of your time in the near future to offer an apology in person for the inappropriate message and its content."

What we have at UM and in Missoula is now a full-blown scandal. No longer is it about trying to get justice for victims of rape. No longer is it about who was the victim and who was the criminal. Now it's about the serious ethical and character flaws of those at the top of the university and the city. Nor is it simply a Montana issue, since the Wall Street Journal joined in that Freedom of Information Act request. The ugly tale has now escaped local boundaries, despite the best efforts of those who should be seeking the truth to suppress, sanitize and camouflage it to save their own reputations.

Attorney General Steve Bullock, who is on the campaign trail attempting to become Montana's next governor, should be commended for taking on the Citizens United decision. But corruption doesn't just come from unfettered campaign spending. What's happening in Missoula right now deserves Bullock's attention, too–and a full investigation, starting with the incriminating evidence in those newly released emails. These highly placed, well-paid individuals are Montanans who have been given the trust of the public and are working for wages and benefits paid by the public, which expects, in return, at least a modicum of integrity in public office and service.

Montana already has ethics laws on the books, including MCA 2-2-103, which reads, "The holding of public office or employment is a public trust, created by the confidence that the electorate reposes in the integrity of public officers, legislators and public employees. A public officer, legislator or public employee shall carry out the individual's duties for the benefit of the people of the state. ... A public officer, legislator or public employee whose conduct departs from the person's public duty is liable to the people of the state and is subject to the penalties provided ... for abuse of the public's trust."

It couldn't be much clearer that the public's trust—and the duty to the public—has been subsumed by public officials who were vastly more interested in hiding the truth about UM's rapes than pursuing it. Despite the risks of alienating some powerful people during his campaign, Bullock would be well-served by turning his attention to Missoula and those who have impeded justice.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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