Dressed casually in jeans and a gray North Face jacket, Josh Van de Wetering gazes up into the old Stimson Lumber Co. building on a blustery spring afternoon. The structure’s ceiling shoots up 60 feet and spans an impressive 7 acres, dwarfing the figures standing below.
The Missoula County attorney hopeful is busy juggling his campaign and his private law practice, but learning about the economic endeavors of local businesses – like Bonner Property Development – is something that interests him.
“It’s nice to be able to see what’s going on and ... put a picture with that,” he said.
As the tour comes to an end, he chats with property owner Mike Boehme about the extensive environmental cleanup at Milltown and along the Blackfoot River before ducking into the site’s oldest structure, built around 1890.
Boehme isn’t Van de Wetering’s client, but the pair met at a recent campaign fundraiser, where Van de Wetering requested the tour because of his interest in business endeavors within the county.
As he explained later, Van de Wetering is dissatisfied with the county attorney’s civil division and its handling of matters, and is eager to improve that side of the office – which he calls “intentionally obstructive.”
He points to the Dunrovin Ranch debacle, in which the county tried to shut down the small guest ranch outside Lolo, saying it was too small to qualify for exemptions. District Judge Ed McLean ruled in favor of the ranch, writing the office had “harassed the business since 2010” and micromanaged its affairs.
Van de Wetering explains that if elected, he would put an end to such frivolous suits by personally authorizing the county’s decisions to litigate.
“My goal is to help citizens follow the law – not to be counterproductive in their efforts,” he said.
Van de Wetering said he has a breadth of experience that would be beneficial to the office – including experience in civil litigation – that his opponent, Kirsten Pabst, may be lacking.
Perhaps more importantly, Van de Wetering criticizes the continuing standoff between County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg and the U.S. Justice Department over the office’s alleged mishandling of sexual assault cases.
“It’s hard to watch what’s going on,” he said. “I have tremendous respect for Fred – he served the public at a personal sacrifice. I just cannot agree with how he is handling it.”
Van Valkenburg has been adamant in his refusal to cooperate with the DOJ, and filed suit in February against the department, arguing the federal agency lacks jurisdiction over the locally elected office. In response, the DOJ sent a 20-page report to media outlets outlining multiple allegations that occurred under Pabst’s watch as chief deputy prosecutor. (She has since left the County Attorney’s Office for private practice.)
Van de Wetering believes his distance from the County Attorney’s Office gives him the edge in this year’s race, which will be decided in the June Democratic primary. No Republicans have filed for the office, and a third Democratic candidate dropped out of the race.
“It’s a good year to run as an outsider,” Van de Wetering said while driving through Missoula. “It really is a time that we need a fresh set of eyes in the office.”
But critics see Van de Wetering’s lack of local prosecutorial experience as a weakness. He worked a total of five years as a local prosecutor, and most of those years were spent outside Missoula County.
In fact, Missoula attorney and Pabst supporter David Paoli said Van de Wetering may be ill-prepared to take office.
“I think that Van de Wetering’s experience as a federal prosecutor doesn’t prepare him for ... the types of situations the County Attorney’s Office has to deal with,” Paoli said.
Van de Wetering spent a good chunk of his career as a federal prosecutor and the office of the U.S. attorney has an array of federal agencies it relies on, including the FBI and the IRS. The County Attorney’s Office doesn’t have access to those sorts of high-powered, well-funded resources.
Paoli also said Van de Wetering has a tendency to be tardy and has even missed court dates. He said the county attorney hopeful “bounced around from job to job” and hasn’t been successful in his private practice – a claim that Van de Wetering adamantly denies.
Several weeks ago, Deputy County Attorney Jason Marks announced his decision to withdraw from the county attorney’s race, following conversations with voters, other officeholders and Missoula Mayor John Engen.
“I have heard loud and clear that voters feel it’s important to have someone outside the office become the next county attorney,” Marks wrote in a news release.
Marks’ decision left only former county prosecutor Pabst and Van de Wetering to battle for the seat Van Valkenburg plans to vacate at the end of 2014, after 15 years in office.
Like his opponent, Van de Wetering has spent time prosecuting criminal cases for Missoula County, but that term ended in 1998 shortly before Van Valkenburg took office. Van de Wetering then spent 10 years as a federal prosecutor before setting up shop with his current law partner, Johnna Baffa.
Van de Wetering’s private law office is on East Front Street in a newer building. On his walls hang photos of his two children – Mayah and Noah – and his diplomas. It’s a fairly peaceful office, simply decorated with a couch, a plush chair and a desk.
About 70 percent of his practice is criminal defense and he said he does a fair amount of pro-bono work, too. Among those clients was the alleged victim in the Jordan Johnson rape case.
Johnson, the University of Montana quarterback represented by Pabst and Paoli, was acquitted after a 12-day trial.
Baffa said Van de Wetering’s representation of the alleged victim shows how much he cares for victims. He initially helped her request, and receive, a restraining order against Johnson, but continued to advocate for her through the trial – free of charge, Baffa said.
He continues to field phone calls from national news media and authors for the victim, who has declined all interviews, Baffa explained.
It’s part of what makes him the ideal candidate for the job, she said. Baffa also thinks that Van de Wetering has the leadership qualities needed to restore faith in the office.
“People have a lot of distrust in the office,” she said. “You want them to trust the County Attorney’s Office and I think that he’s that kind of person that people innately trust. … I think that he earns that trust.”
“He is good at looking at the big picture,” she added.
Included in his criminal defense cases is Van de Wetering’s representation of another UM student accused of raping a fellow student in 2012. The male student was ultimately expelled, but the County Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against the man.
Van de Wetering said he couldn’t comment on the case because of client confidentiality but offered that as lead prosecutor, he, like Van Valkenburg, wouldn’t take every rape case that comes through the door.
“There are some cases that may be sexual assault but may not be provable,” he said.
And some cases just aren’t sexual assault, he said. Regardless, he promised to review the cases on an individual basis.
“I’m eager to take the difficult cases,” Van de Wetering said.
It’s not the prosecutor’s job to determine the ultimate outcome of a case, he explained.
Despite the sensationalism surrounding Missoula’s highest-profile rape cases, Van de Wetering adamantly disagreed with the national media depiction of Missoula as a city fraught with sexual assault.
“I don’t think Missoula is the rape capital of anything,” Van de Wetering said. “We have the same really bad problem that everyone else does.”
He sees the current situation as two separate issues: the handling of sexual assault cases by county prosecutors and the matter of federal jurisdiction over the office.
To the critics of the way the office handles sexual assault, Van de Wetering offered a multi-layered approach. He wants to have an in-house communications liaison to work with victims and the crime victim advocate office. He also suggested a citizens’ council, similar to the police department’s citizen control board, to create a way for victims to complain about the County Attorney’s Office.
If elected, he will personally oversee all rape cases referred to the County Attorney’s Office for a period of time, he said.
All are part of what Van de Wetering calls a “Missoula-specific” solution” to the controversy surrounding the county’s prosecution of sexual assault cases.
But to the other piece of the puzzle, Van de Wetering is a little ambiguous.
Though he has previously praised Van Valkenburg’s efforts against the Justice Department, saying “there’s no way I’m going to let the DOJ take away local control,” he’s now critical of Van Valkenburg’s decision to pursue a lawsuit against the federal department.
He said that he would certainly invite the DOJ into the office because “it wouldn’t hurt to know what their opinion is,” but he maintains the DOJ doesn’t have authority over the County Attorney’s Office.
“I may as well dig my heels in, but only in the context that we are doing everything we can when it comes to rape cases,” he said.
The only son of two UM professors, Van de Wetering is a Democrat who campaigned for former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus as an adolescent. He briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a Republican while at the University of Colorado Law School.
His pursuit of higher education wasn’t a direct route.
He started at a small college in California before transferring across the country to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. When he dropped out of school, his parents had had enough and cut him loose.
He was on his own, financially.
Van de Wetering made his way back to Billings, where he worked an array of odd jobs until he again found himself campaigning for Baucus. That position landed him a job at the Senate Library in Washington, D.C., where the value of an education was finally instilled in him.
In his mid-20s, he re-enrolled in college at the University of Colorado, but this time with the purpose of obtaining his law degree.
He eventually made his way back to Missoula – the place where he was born and now would like to lead as its prosecutor.
Coming Wednesday: A profile of Kirsten Pabst, candidate for Missoula County attorney.