Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg felt a sense of resignation as he stepped in front of television cameras and local officials and pledged to end his contentious two-year fight against the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I essentially had to agree that the settlement was a good thing for everybody,” Van Valkenburg said during an interview after last week’s press conference announcing the settlement, “and that it needed to go forward.”
Van Valkenburg says he wanted to continue fighting, to pursue his February lawsuit against the DOJ that called for the federal government to cease its attempts to forcibly shape how local prosecutors handle sex crimes. But in the final months of a 16-year tenure as Missoula’s chief prosecutor, Van Valkenburg’s desire to make a clean exit and clear the way for his successor contributed to his decision to settle the lawsuit.
On June 10, Van Valkenburg agreed to end a saga that began in May 2012, when the federal government launched investigations into how the Missoula Police Department, the University of Montana and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office responded to dozens of sexual assault cases between 2008 and 2012. After a year-long investigation, the DOJ found deficiencies within the MPD and UM and ordered both to comply with a series of mandates. In exchange for being absolved of legal wrongdoing, UM and MPD agreed to the changes. Van Valkenburg, however, maintained his office had done nothing wrong and that the federal government had no authority to investigate a locally elected county attorney.
When Van Valkenburg later filed his lawsuit, the DOJ responded with allegations of “substantial evidence” suggesting county prosecutors discriminate against female sexual-assault victims. In a letter addressed to the community, the DOJ said the county’s shortcomings put “all women in Missoula at risk.”
Last week’s agreement may seem a striking turnaround from the heated back and forth, but a tired-sounding Van Valkenburg says it offers a way out for everyone involved.
“They got enough to where they could claim that they had accomplished something, but on the other hand it was nothing near what they were demanding previously,” Van Valkenburg says.
Van Valkenburg received a statement affirming that he’s not subject to DOJ authority, but rather that of the Montana Attorney General’s Office, which played an instrumental role negotiating the deal. Similarly, the agreement specifies that the prosecutor’s office isn’t admitting to any wrongdoing.
The settlement does commit the county attorney’s office to significant changes, specifically hiring a coordinator to streamline prosecutor-victim communication and employing a technical advisor to train prosecutors and help craft written policies to guide future sexual assault prosecutions. The office will also create a computer tracking system for advocates and victims to stay updated on case progress.
The Board of Missoula County Commissioners, which oversees the county attorney’s budget, has agreed to pay a roughly $50,000 annual salary to fund the victim coordinator position and $150,000 for 12 months of technical advisor service. An additional $10,000 will be set aside to pay expert witnesses working on sexual assault cases.
Van Valkenburg concedes the extra money for expert witnesses will likely help prosecutors secure convictions. He also agrees the in-house coordinator will help with communication. But, with characteristic bluster, he calls the overall agreement “window dressing.”
“The rest of it, it doesn’t really provide any resources to the county attorney’s office,” he says. “We just have to do a lot of work in order to create a sort of paper trail for somebody else to follow. There will actually be less resources, because we’re going to have to devote time to developing policies, having people go to additional trainings, things of that nature, rather than actually working on the cases that they are assigned to work on.”
While Van Valkenburg signed the agreement, much of its implementation will be left to his successor, Kirsten Pabst, who was elected earlier this month and will take over at the end of the year.
Pabst is a 14-year county attorney’s office veteran who left in 2012 to go into private practice. Pabst’s departure, in addition to her well-publicized criticism of Van Valkenburg’s office while in private practice, has raised questions about the transition. Van Valkenburg is among those worried.
“I think it’s going to be a very hard transition,” he says. “And it will take some real effort on lots of different people, but primarily Kirsten, because she will be county attorney. And she’s the one who’s got to make the whole thing work, to reach out to people and try and mend some fences ...”
Pabst declined to comment for this article. However, during an interview last month with the Independent, she said despite the past friction, she’s ready to get to work. “Business is business,” Pabst said. “I’m a professional.”
Beyond the change in office, victim advocates see the agreement between the DOJ and Missoula County as a positive step. Anne Munch, an attorney who runs an independent consulting business that has already helped MPD and UM comply with settlement mandates and will now assist the county, already sees positive changes. When it comes to a community’s response to sexual assault, Munch says success shouldn’t necessarily be measured by conviction rates, but rather whether those who report crimes feel like they’re being taken seriously. Now that the prosecutor’s office is committed to improving victim responsiveness, Munch says Missoula is poised to become a model for other communities.
“Missoula could be the place that people look to as how to change and create the best response for victims in a community,” she says. “It only stands to improve from here.”