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.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at (406) 523-5266 or by email at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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(13) comments

pudu

Fred Van Valkenburg (and some of his staff) are an expensive embarrassment for Missoula County. He has created the perception (at least) nationwide that this is a place where sexual assaults are not taken seriously by law enforcement. This makes us akin to places like India and Pakistan and affects everything from UM enrollments to tourism. It could have been so easily avoided if Fred had been more concerned with the public interest than in indulging his ego at taxpayer expense. He got us into this fix and now the Commissioners appear ready (again) to back him up regardless of the fact that we are in this situation because of his ego. Would Fred be standing on this principle if the DOJ were bringing a case against a County Attorney in rural Alabama for not taking assaults against black women seriously? I think not. On the Civil side some attorneys in his office are equally bad. We need a new County Attorney and need to elect one who is so little principled that he has stayed in the current office where decisions are made based on political considerations and ego.of the attorneys whose salaries we pay.

montanamuralist
montanamuralist

This was caused by extremists who complained to the DOJ. Their comments here have been outrageous. Ask Bo Donaldson if football players get off for sexual assault. Why do you wild eyed folks never mention that as you make your broad sweeping statements about how football players get off for rape. Johnson did not get off because he was put on trial. He got off because the evidence clearly showed there was not a sexual assault. The DOJ intervention, as Alan points out below, was unprecedented. They were responding to complaints about what is standard in the legal system. If you do not have enough evidence you can not spend taxpayer money going to court to get a conviction. I don't think the Jordan Johnson case would have gone to trial had there not been so much pressure on the County Attorney. What has been really disturbing on these pages over the last couple years are the attacks on those who believe in fairness and those who say if we believe in the legal system we support the rapist and hate the victims. I am as progressive and liberal as they come in many areas including sexual assault as a crime and should be punished harshly. But to call us supporters of rapists and we are not for "pesky victims" shows why both sides of the political spectrum need to have a little common sense. Fred VanValkenburg is a good man and has prosecuted hundreds of sexual assault cases in this county. To say otherwise or to say there is some conspiracy regarding the Griz football team etc etc is just insane.

Readneck

How much of our money has this corrupt Prosecutor wasted so far fighting instead of cooperating? Sure looks like a cover up.

montananurse

Smiley, exactly how do you treat a victim of a sexual assault "way over the top too good"?

Faxnlogicovremotnlhystria

Eric holder has such a reputation of doing the right thing and being honest...

Roger
Roger

Way to stand up to the bullies, Mr. Van Valkenburg - the Obama Administration is obligated to follow the law - let's see what the courts have to say about the heavy-handed response of the federal government.

DoItRight
DoItRight

Bullies? Oh, the rape victims. Yes, Mr. Van Vulkenburg, stand up to those pesky rape victims.

Of course the victims of sexual abuse get proper treatment in Missoula. The perpetrators get proper treatment, too. Unless they’re football players, then they get the very best proper treatment.

Alan H Johnson

You know very well that Roger's comment was directed at the U.S. Department of Justice and not "rape victims." The Department of Justice has exceeded it's authority in it's unprecedented action. This is not about advocating for or against rape victims (Sexual Intercourse Without Consent in Montana). This is about jurisdiction. I am glad though that the County Attorney is willing to negotiate. Hopefully the US Attorney's office is like-minded and this issue does not need to be dumped in the lap of the new County Attorney next year.

montanamuralist
montanamuralist

Yes I agree Alan. Glad Fred is trying to get this taken care of now and also happy he stood on his principles throughout.

Smilely

"to make sure victims of sexual abuse are treated properly here in Missoula", Huh, I think not only are they treated good but in many cases way over the top too good. I think it is about time we assure that people who have been alleged to have committed some of these so called sex crimes are treated properly and fairly and treated as individuals and not all lumped in together.

startingover

"So called sex crimes"? Exactly what do you mean people who are alleged to have committed these "so called sex crimes" are not all lumped together? You think some alleged rapists deserve different treatment than others?

Bittersweet
Bittersweet

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Objective observer

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