Missoula County attorney refuses DOJ requests

2012-06-28T12:15:00Z 2014-10-03T14:28:30Z Missoula County attorney refuses DOJ requestsBy JENNA CEDERBERG of the Missoulian missoulian.com

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg pledged Wednesday to continue refusing all requests for information from the U.S. Department of Justice as it investigates how his office prosecutes reports of sexual assault.

“You have once again failed to convince me that your agency has any authority to investigate our office,” Van Valkenburg wrote in a letter sent Monday to the DOJ’s special litigation section chief, Jonathan Smith.

In May, Justice Department officials announced an investigation of the University of Montana, campus police, Missoula police and the county attorney’s office, focused on the handling of sexual assault reports during the past three years.

From the start, Van Valkenburg has disputed the DOJ’s authority to investigate his office. He said Wednesday he will not provide any information or meet with investigators during their planned visit to Missoula on July 9-13 – unless the department changes course and provides legal authority for or drops its investigation.

Van Valkenburg has corresponded several times with the DOJ since the investigation was announced.

The letter sent Monday came in response to a May 29 DOJ letter requesting – for the second time – a set of documents from the county attorney’s office pertaining to the investigation. The letter noted the DOJ is planning a “visit during early July” and asked Van Valkenburg to reply with the requested information by June 25.

The DOJ contends it has the authority to investigate the county attorney’s office under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, as well as pattern and practice provisions of the Safe Streets Act, because the county attorney’s office is a recipient of federal funds.

In a June 6 letter to Van Valkenburg, Justice Department officials wrote “your receipt of federal funds, directly or otherwise, is accompanied by an obligation not to discriminate on the basis of gender.”

In his response, Van Valkenburg said his office does not receive any federal funding from the “Missoula Co-Occurring Treatment Court.”

“Under such circumstances, your claim of investigatory authority based on this grant, where we receive no federal funding whatsoever, is either unfounded or disingenuous,” the letter said.

The DOJ also claims, in a May 23 letter to Van Valkenburg, that under section 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the federal government has authority to sue local governments over the conduct of their law enforcement officers.

“Prosecutors are undisputedly law enforcement officers,” the DOJ letter said.

Again, Van Valkenburg provided the counterpoint.

In his most recent letter, he said the Department of Justice has refused to acknowledge his argument that prosecutors are not law enforcement officers.

“If you actually have legitimate legal arguments that overcome these objections, I suggest you present them to me now instead of simply reiterating demands that we submit to an investigation to avoid litigation,” the letter said.

The University of Montana and city officials have agreed to full participation in the DOJ’s investigation.

Van Valkenburg’s letter says his office will only provide the requested information “in the event you change course and either provide me with sufficient legal authority for an investigation or you accept my offer to work together cooperatively in the absence of any threats of litigation.”

Van Valkenburg said Wednesday the DOJ has yet to respond to his latest letter.

***

Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, traveled to Missoula on May 1 to announce the investigation, which he called “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.”

Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at jenna.cederberg@missoulian.com.

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