A U.S. Department of Justice investigation into how sexual assault cases are handled in Missoula will review 80 rape reports over the last three years, a federal prosecutor announced Tuesday.

Although University of Montana and city officials pledged their support, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg denounced that action as an overreach by “the heavy hand of the federal government,” and insisted that his office has done nothing wrong.

The County Attorney’s Office, along with the Missoula Police Department, the University of Montana, and the UM Office of Public Safety all received notification letters Monday that they’re subjects of the DOJ investigation.

“The allegations that the University of Montana, the local police department and the County Attorney’s Office failed to adequately address sexual assault are very disturbing,” U.S Attorney General Eric Holder said in the DOJ’s announcement of the investigation.

Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, traveled to Missoula for Tuesday’s announcement, calling the investigation “a difficult situation but a necessary situation.” He stressed that it’s a civil, not a criminal, investigation.

The federal review follows a University of Montana investigation that began in December with allegations that two students were gang-raped, possibly after being drugged, by several male students. UM hired former Montana Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz to look into the matter.

Her investigation grew to include nine alleged sexual assaults from September 2010 through December, and concluded that “the UM has a problem of sexual assault on and off campus.” Two more alleged assaults later were added to the list.

Criticism of UM’s handling of sexual assault reached a crescendo in February after UM Dean of Students Charles Couture notified a Saudi exchange student he’d been accused of rape. The man fled the country before his alleged victim filed a report with Missoula police.

The DOJ review will go beyond the UM investigation to examine the 80 reports of all rapes – not just those involving students – throughout Missoula over three years. The agency’s notification letters to the Police Department and County Attorney’s Office specified allegations that each agency “has failed to investigate reports of sexual assaults against women because of their gender or in a manner that has a disparate impact on women.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education is evaluating a complaint filed in January alleging harassment by members of the Grizzlies football team. Perez said Tuesday that if the Education Department launches an investigation, both federal agencies could coordinate their efforts.

And, he provided a toll-free number and email address where people could provide information to federal investigators about how sexual assaults are handled in Missoula.

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UM President Royce Engstrom, Police Chief Mark Muir and Mayor John Engen – as well as other police officers and city and county staff – all attended Tuesday’s news conference in a cramped conference room at the U.S. Attorney’s Office on East Pine Street.

Perez praised all of them for their quick vows of cooperation in the DOJ investigation, and for systemic changes they’ve already made, such as Engstrom’s public forums on sexual assault, and the city-county-UM effort to urge sexual assault victims to call 9-1-1.

Those officials in turn publicy repeated their promises to help the DOJ – and lauded the work of the other agencies targeted by the review.

“I have tremendous faith in the women and men of the Missoula police force,” Engen said. While “I and Chief Muir have no sense that we have failed to do our jobs … if there are things we aren’t doing right, we’re absolutely committed to doing them right.”

Likewise, Engstrom said that “we all have room for improvement and all have room to learn.”

Van Valkenburg then took to the podium to say that “we adamantly deny we have done any such things and are deeply disturbed” by the allegations.

He criticized Justice Department officials for refusing to explain what triggered the investigation and said they’re “essentially sending a message to every local prosecutor in America” that they can be second-guessed. “That’s wrong, and undermines the dedicated hard work prosecutors are doing across America to fight crime.”

Prosecutors are just as ethically bound not to pursue cases that lack evidence as they are to seek convictions, he said.

Perez responded that “I don’t think protecting women from rape or sexual assault or sexual harassment is an overreach of federal government.” A lot of women around the country have concerns, he said, “about the manner in which sexual assault is handled. This is serious stuff.”

Montana Board of Regents member Pat Williams said Tuesday that he’s pleased that “the Department of Justice is going to move on behalf of assaulted women. … It continues to seem to me that they get left” in the discussions of how the investigations affect UM.

Perez promised a thorough and transparent investigation and said that if no problems are uncovered, the agency will quickly announce that. And if it does find issues, it will work with local agencies to resolve them, he said.

“If necessary, we can instigate litigation,” he said.

Although he said the DOJ investigation would be “expeditious,” he refused to estimate how long it might take.

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

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