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University of Montana President Royce Engstrom, right, Missoula Mayor John Engen, left, and Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir listen while Thomas E. Perez announces in May the Department of Justice investigation into how sexual assaults are handled in Missoula.

KURT WILSON/Missoulian

U.S. Department of Justice investigators will interview Missoula police Wednesday and Thursday about 518 sexual assault reports, ranging from misdemeanors to rape, over the past four years, Chief Mark Muir said Tuesday.

The DOJ interviews are part of a wide-ranging investigation – that followed reports in December of sexual assaults involving University of Montana students – into how such cases are handled in Missoula and at UM.

On Tuesday, DOJ attorneys interviewed Lucy France, director of UM’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office, for several hours, France said. Others involved in sexual assault investigations at UM will be interviewed throughout the week, she said.

The DOJ investigation includes UM’s Office of Public Safety and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office. However, County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg has refused to cooperate.

When Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, traveled to Missoula in May to announce the civil investigation, he said a total of 80 rape cases – not just those involving UM students – over the past three years would be reviewed.

DOJ letters to the Missoula Police Department and County Attorney’s Office noted allegations that the agencies “failed to investigate reports of sexual assaults against women because of their gender or in a manner that has a disparate impact on women.”

Muir said Tuesday that later requests from DOJ sought paperwork on cases dating to Jan. 1, 2008. And, he said, “they expanded the definition sufficiently to constitute not just rape but also forms of other sex crimes, such as misdemeanor sexual assault. When they spread the net further, it caught 518 cases.”

He said he didn’t know how many of those cases were referred to the County Attorney’s Office for potential prosecution.

Cathy Swift, chief legal counsel for the Montana University System, confirmed Tuesday that DOJ investigators are on the Missoula campus this week. The U.S. Education Department also is investigating allegations of harassment by members of UM’s football team. The two federal agencies will coordinate investigations.

UM’s football team also is under investigation by the NCAA for unspecified reasons. In March, UM President Royce Engstrom fired football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day, saying only that he sought change.

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Muir said DOJ investigators will spend from 9 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday interviewing a number of people at the city police department.

“They’ll start at the top and work their way down,” he said, noting that he’s scheduled for a two-hour interview first thing Wednesday.

Missoula Mayor John Engen said no one from DOJ has contacted him about the investigators’ visit.

“I’m just going to assume that if they need me, they’ll have a conversation with me,” the mayor said. “We’ve had one about making sure they get what they need. We’re going to make sure we continue marching down that path.”

Muir said it took about 500 hours of city time to compile the documents requested by DOJ investigators.

“The most significant disruption to date has been with respect to putting together the data to fulfill their requests for the production of documents,” he said. “These two days of interviews should not be highly disruptive.”

The requests for police department documents date to Rusty Wickman’s tenure as chief. Muir replaced him in May 2008.

He wasn’t sure if Wickman will be interviewed.

Van Valkenburg said Tuesday he doesn’t expect to see any Justice Department investigators this week.

“I told them not to come by and I don’t expect them to disregard that,” he said.

He’s had no communication with anyone from DOJ since his June 25 response to the agency’s second request for documents.

“Unfortunately, you have once again failed to convince me that your agency has any authority to investigate our office,” he wrote then.

Meanwhile, former Chief Deputy County Attorney Kirsten Pabst LaCroix said Tuesday she can’t comment on whether she’s been contacted by anyone from the Justice Department.

LaCroix left the County Attorney’s Office earlier this year and now has a solo practice as Kirsten Pabst.

A UM student who reported being sexually assaulted last year told the Missoulian that LaCroix testified on behalf of her alleged assailant at a university Student Conduct Code hearing. The student said she found out at the hearing that the County Attorney’s Office wasn’t going to prosecute the man. UM, however, expelled him, she said.

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com or @CopsAndCourts on Twitter.

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