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Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg talks to the county commissioners on Tuesday, Jan. 28, before they unanimously approved releasing $50,000 of county funds for Van Valkenburg’s office to file suit against the U.S. Department of Justice.

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg filed a motion seeking declaratory judgment in U.S. District Court in Missoula on Tuesday, asking a federal judge to decide whether the U.S. Department of Justice has jurisdiction over the local county attorney’s office.

The federal lawsuit stems from a standoff between the DOJ and Van Valkenburg that began when federal officials accused the county attorney’s office, Missoula police and the University of Montana of mishandling sexual assault cases in 2012.

The university and city police have since entered into agreements with the federal government, but Van Valkenburg has been adamant in his refusal to cooperate with the DOJ, saying the government is overreaching its jurisdiction.

In a statement released Tuesday, attorney Natasha Jones – who is representing Missoula County in the lawsuit – said this is the first time the DOJ has attempted to interfere in a county attorney’s office.

“Our local prosecutors are governed by the Montana’s attorney general, not by Washington, D.C., politics,” Jones said. “The DOJ is exceeding and abusing its statutory and constitutional authority.”

The federal lawsuit comes a few weeks after Missoula County commissioners unanimously approved releasing $50,000 in county funds to Van Valkenburg to initiate the suit and hire outside counsel as representation.

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Van Valkenburg assured commissioners at the Jan. 28 meeting that his pre-emptive strike would be successful and more cost-effective than if his office followed a list of stipulations laid out by the DOJ in a proposed settlement agreement.

Commissioners agreed.

The DOJ proposed a settlement agreement in December, after nearly 20 months of political stalemate. In that agreement, the DOJ asked Van Valkenburg to hire internal investigators, an in-house victim advocate, and designate an unspecified number of prosecutors to focus on sexual assault cases – among other suggestions.

But Van Valkenburg rejected the terms. On Jan. 9, he fired back, giving federal officials two weeks to enter into an “amicable agreement.”

“It’s unfortunate that the DOJ chose not to respond to my offer to clarify and resolve this matter,” Van Valkenburg said in the statement released late Tuesday.

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Reporter Kathryn Haake can be reached at 523-5268 or at kate.haake@missoulian.com.

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