Missoula’s county attorney has given the U.S. Department of Justice two weeks to show it’s willing to reach an amicable agreement over his office’s handling of sexual assault and rape cases.
Fred Van Valkenburg argued in a five-page letter sent Thursday to the Montana U.S. attorney that his office is doing things right and the DOJ is overstepping its bounds in demanding he beef up his personnel to handle referrals, a move he has said could cost the county up to $400,000 over the next two years.
“If instead of continuing to try to impose its own solution on our office, the DOJ wants to resolve this matter amicably, I am willing to negotiate a Memorandum of Agreement that puts in place a commitment on the part of our office to assist the Missoula Police Department and the University of Montana Office of Public Safety in meeting their obligations under their respective agreements with the DOJ,” Van Valkenburg wrote.
If not, he added, “I am prepared to take any action necessary to prevent the DOJ from imposing an unacceptable solution on our office.”
The county commission has his back, said chairwoman Jean Curtiss after a morning sit-down with Van Valkenburg.
“We’re hopeful the DOJ will agree with his points and see that the goal they have set is to make sure victims of sexual abuse are treated properly here in Missoula,” Curtiss said. “We think his letter outlines he’s doing just that.”
Van Valkenburg last week courted the commissioners’ support for financing a request to seek a declaratory judgment in federal court to prove the DOJ is out of bounds. Curtiss and fellow commissioners Bill Carey and Michele Landquist have set aside $50,000 from the general fund budget in case it comes to that.
“We agree with his approach,” Curtiss said. “I know it’s been kind of puffed up and didn’t really look good at first, but we still think it’s right.”
Van Valkenburg’s letter was sent in response to a proposed settlement in the showdown between Montana U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter’s federal agency and Van Valkenburg’s county office.
In that proposal, delivered in early December, Cotter outlined a plan that called on the Missoula County attorney to add three positions to better address rape and sexual assault referrals from the police department.
Van Valkenburg said the DOJ misunderstands that the role of the county attorney’s office in these cases doesn’t include investigations. He said the department can’t make a “good-faith argument” that the office has engaged in a pattern or practice of sex discrimination that violates civil rights.
Cotter’s agency doesn’t even acknowledge the applicability of the U.S. Supreme Court doctrine of prosecutorial immunity, Van Valkenburg wrote.
“Even if the DOJ files suit against our office, I believe the suit will be dismissed in short order as a result of long-standing case law upholding a prosecutor’s immunity from suit when acting in his prosecutorial capacity,” he wrote.
Van Valkenburg cited several reasons why he doesn’t find Cotter’s proposed settlement agreement acceptable.
He lauded his office’s long track record for assisting victims, including its “extremely active” role in the development of Missoula’s First STEP program and a multidisciplinary team that ensures a collaborative response to sexual assaults. Van Valkenburg is a member of First STEP’s active advisory board, he pointed out.
A recent memorandum of understanding with the Missoula Police Department includes a timely review of sexual assault cases and face-to-face meetings with victims, advocates and police investigators to discuss the outcomes of sexual assault case referrals.
Several attorneys in the county attorney’s office have already received specialized training in the area of sexual assault prosecutions, he said, and his office has long provided training for local law enforcement officers in prosecuting procedures.
Van Valkenburg pointed out Missoula County has made the decision to establish an independent victim advocate office that has “over eight employees” and an annual budget of roughly $850,000.
He said the model has worked well.
“It is totally inappropriate that some federal agency attempt to impose a different method of delivering victim advocate services in our community,” he said.
Curtiss said in a recent meeting with Chantelle Gaynor of the crime victims advocate office on a separate issue, commissioners asked Gaynor what she thought of the relationship with Van Valkenburg’s office. Gaynor said it has been good, and when issues have arisen, the county attorney’s office has responded quickly to resolve them.
“I feel like our system really works,” Curtiss said.