Tangled mess 

How Fred Van Valkenburg is like an octopus

As a taxpayer and Missoula homer, I want to believe that my county attorney is the victim of federal overreach. My alternative is to believe that his office has systematically under-prosecuted sexual assaults, as the U.S. Department of Justice alleges, and that possibility is too depressing to contemplateespecially since we just spent $50,000 to prove otherwise.

But my investor confidence was sorely tried last week, when I read that now-Gov. Steve Bullock entered into an agreement with the DOJ back in June 2012, when he was still Montana's attorney general. That agreement brought his office into cooperation with the DOJ by requiring that Justice investigators turn over any new evidence pertaining to sexual assaults.

It was alarming news, since Van Valkenburg's whole suit rests on the idea that he is not accountable to the feds but only to our state attorney general. Now it seems that the DOJ's authority might reach through the AG's office and into Van Valkenburg's, and maybe we just blew 50 grand on an oversight he knew about all along.

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I was not the only one alarmed. The Missoulian described Missoula County Commissioner Michele Landquist as "livid," and other commissioners share her sense that they were duped. Van Valkenburg seems to have resisted scrutiny not only from the DOJ but from his own benefactors. Once again, residents must discern what's happening in their county attorney's office as one discerns the octopus behind a cloud of ink.

That's a problem, because one assumes the octopus is gross. We fill in the parts we can't see with suckers and a creepy beak, so that the less we know the worse we imagine. Our county attorney's office turns red and waves its tentacles when someone gets too close. The octopus is shy, and so it takes on the character of a lurking monster.

Yet the people who work with the octopus invariably say it is doing a great job. They ascribe the problems in Van Valkenburg's office to one prosecutor, as Shantelle Gaynor, program manager of the Missoula crime victims advocate office, essentially did last week.

"[Prosecutors] put their hearts and souls into their cases," she told the Missoulian. "But just like in any place of work, there are some people who are better at their jobs than others. There are some people who have strengths in crimes against people and some people who should be working property crimes."

The octopus is misunderstood. Victims advocates—the Jacques Cousteaus of Missoula criminal justice—say one arm is trouble, but the larger organism is benign. It is those of us watching from shore who have determined that the octopus is a monster, because we never get to really see it.

Here lies the problem with Van Valkenburg's strategy. The people who know his office well agree that the DOJ has investigated him too heavy-handedly. But in resisting that investigation, he has systematically limited the number of people who know his office well. We saw the problem with that strategy last week, when Van Valkenburg alienated county commissioners by not telling them the whole story of his fight with the DOJ.

The octopus may be more scared of us than we are of it, but it needs to realize that all this darting around and spraying ink is scaring us. Our octopus should consider giving us a good look at it, because we just gave it $50,000 to sue the federal government.

The future of that lawsuit looks dimmer now, in a way that calls into question what our best-case scenario actually is. Is it that Van Valkenburg wins a declaratory judgment against the DOJ, and his office does nothing investigators recommend?

That seems unlikely. Police and the University of Montana have already cooperated with the DOJ, and now they are changing for the better. If the county attorney is committed to fighting sexual assault, as those who know him say he is, then his office will change, too. In the process of working with police and the university, Van Valkenburg will probably wind up doing a lot of what the DOJ wants him to do.

Is it worth all the money, effort and bad press to prove that they're not making him? Van Valkenburg and the DOJ share the same goals. The only thing they disagree on is whether anyone, be it federal government or county commission, can tell the county attorney what to do.

The octopus is wild and free. In its elusive nature, though, it has developed a worse reputation than it deserves. Van Valkenburg should consider what he wants to accomplish during his last few months in office, and whether the DOJ is really his natural enemy. It is the instinct of the octopus to hide, but it is also in its nature to evolve.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and aquatic life at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.

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