The U.S. Department of Justice and the Missoula County attorney resolved a long-running feud over the alleged mishandling of sexual assault cases by county prosecutors on Tuesday, although tensions remained high during a news conference announcing the agreement.
With Montana Attorney General Tim Fox serving as mediator between the county and DOJ, agreements were signed aimed at strengthening Missoula County’s prosecution of sexual assaults by adding several new positions and providing funding for experts to aid in investigations and at trial.
“My primary concern has been and continues to be that justice is served for victims of sexual assault crimes throughout Montana,” Fox said. “Missoula County Attorney (Fred) Van Valkenburg’s legal position regarding the USDOJ’s authority over his office is spot-on, and Montana law is clear: My office has the authority and responsibility in this matter. This robust agreement with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office reflects our commitment to holding the guilty accountable, protecting the innocent, and ensuring that victims are treated with the compassion and respect they deserve.”
Signing the pair of agreements were Fox, Van Valkenburg, the Missoula County commissioners and U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter.
The documents address the federal agency’s concerns about the prosecution of sexual assault by Missoula County prosecutors, but are clear that Montana’s attorney general – not his federal counterpart – has jurisdiction over the county and will oversee any changes.
The agreements also stipulate that Van Valkenburg will immediately dismiss the lawsuit he filed against the U.S. government in February. That suit asked a judge to rule that federal prosecutors have no jurisdiction over county prosecutors, a contention that Fox asserted on Tuesday as well.
The agreements seemed to be amenable to all parties present at the signing ceremony, but still managed to spark Van Valkenburg’s ire.
The county attorney, who will retire in December after 16 years in office, reiterated his assertion that the DOJ has no authority over his office – the issue at the heart of his refusal to cooperative with a federal investigation into the handling of sexual assaults by University of Montana and Missoula police and the Missoula County attorney.
“(The USDOJ) never once reached out – never once in two years – reached out to work cooperatively with me in this matter,” Van Valkenburg said Tuesday. “The letter that (Acting U.S. Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels) issued on Feb. 14 was the single most unprofessional thing I have seen in my practice of law in 41 years. It hurts hugely to see my staff defamed in the way they defamed him.”
Van Valkenburg was referring to a 20-page report that was distributed to the media on Friday, Feb. 14 at 5 p.m., while Van Valkenburg was on vacation. In the document, Samuels wrote that sexual assault victims claimed Missoula prosecutors recited Bible versus and told them “boys will be boys” – among other things – during meetings about their cases.
“I won’t ever be able to stop thinking about them. I can’t tell the number of sleepless nights I have had thinking about how this happened,” Van Valkenburg said. “Why did the United States Department of Justice do what they did here?”
He also bucked a previous statement by U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter, asserting that the prosecution of sexual assaults and the elimination of gender bias in the criminal justice system is priceless.
“People working for the United States government think there is no price to things,” Van Valkenburg said. “There is a price to things and the taxpayers have to pay that bill or their grandchildren or great-grandchildren have to pay that bill. And we should all be very cognizant of that.”
Samuels, who was standing behind the podium as Van Valkenburg made the comments, disputed the county attorney’s characterization of the DOJ’s conduct, findings and legal position.
“Had we had to litigate this, I am confident that we would have prevailed,” she said. “That said, today is a day for looking forward.”
Both Samuels and Fox said Tuesday was a new beginning for Missoula, and the agreement will make Missoula a safer place for women and victims of sexual assault.
The U.S. DOJ’s investigation into the Missoula County Attorney’s Office began in 2012 after allegations of gender bias made their way to the federal office.
At the same time, federal prosecutors began investigating the Missoula police and the University of Montana’s handling of sexual assault reports. Those two entities entered into an agreement in May of 2013, agreeing to a long list of stipulations, including new programs and procedures, special training and outside audits.
But Van Valkenburg was adamant in his refusal to cooperate with the DOJ throughout the two years.
The political standoff culminated in February when Van Valkenburg asked county commissioners for $50,000 to file suit against the DOJ, seeking a judge to rule on whether or not a federal agency has jurisdiction over a county prosecutor.
Several days after the suit was filed, the DOJ released its Valentine’s Day letter, outlining what federal prosecutors believed was a pattern of deficiencies in the local prosecution of sexual assault cases.
When he received word of the letter on the evening of Feb. 14, Van Valkenburg was incensed and called the move manipulative.
“First and foremost, I think that this is one of the most unfair, unethical things that I have witnessed in 35 years of public life,” Van Valkenburg said that Friday. “For the USDOJ to dump this report on the news media at virtually 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, three days after we have filed a complaint for judicial relief, is totally irresponsible.”
Fox entered the picture shortly thereafter, serving as an intermediary between county and federal attorneys and working toward an agreement that would appease both Van Valkenburg and the DOJ.
Fox was clear, however, that he shared Van Valkenburg’s view that the federal Justice Department has no right to investigate a county prosecutor. The state attorney general, in fact, has authority over county attorneys, he said.
The agreement signed Tuesday by the Montana Attorney General’s Office and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office will cost Missoula County $210,000 for one year and will include $10,000 for the county to hire expert witnesses in rape cases, $150,000 for a technical adviser – Anne Munch – to oversee prosecutions, and $45,000 to $50,000 for a victim witness coordinator.
The county will have an opportunity to renew the funding in the following year, but Fox said he is pushing for bi-partisan legislative packages that would assist in funding such initiatives statewide in the future.
Additionally, Fox and his office will review every sexual assault case that does not get charged in Missoula County for the next year.
The agreement further requires the county attorney’s office to:
- Develop and implement sexual assault policies and training for prosecutors, including supervisors;
- Improve the treatment of individuals who report sexual assaults, including in-person interviews and improved communication;
- Ensure county prosecutors are equipped to handle sexual assault cases;
- Use prosecution techniques that have been shown to result in better sexual assault investigations, through improved communication with law enforcement and victims, use of investigators and closer supervision of the development of cases.
- Improve communication and coordination with other Missoula stakeholders regarding sexual assault response, including through public outreach and collaboration with the Missoula Police Department in conducting, and analyzing the results of, a victim witness survey
- Improve the tracking and sharing of data regarding sexual assault prosecution, so the county attorney’s office has a broader picture of what it is doing and can better identify any general concerns or necessary improvements.