The Missoula County attorney will meet with county commissioners this week to discuss a potential lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice and the approach his office will take to address it.
Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said the meeting, set for Thursday, will help bring county commissioners up to speed on the ongoing tug-of-war between his office and the DOJ, and how he intends to resolve it.
“We’re having the meeting to inform the county commission on what’s going on with our dispute with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, and to potentially discuss future action with respect to that discussion with the DOJ,” Van Valkenburg said Tuesday.
In May 2012, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the University of Montana, its campus police, Missoula police and the county attorney’s office, with a focus on their handling of sexual assault reports dating back three years.
The University of Montana and the Missoula Police Department signed an agreement with the DOJ earlier this year, outlining the steps they would take to correct their handling of future cases.
Van Valkenburg, however, has declined to cooperate with the DOJ, saying the agency has no authority to investigate his office. He maintained that pledge Tuesday.
“There’s no indication we’ve violated anyone’s constitutional rights,” Van Valkenburg said. “If we can assist the police department or UM in terms of satisfying their agreement with the DOJ, we’d happily do so. But we’re not going to have the DOJ telling us how to run our office.”
Van Valkenburg said his office has received correspondence from the DOJ threatening a lawsuit. He said the DOJ’s correspondence was listed as “confidential and private” and was intended for “negotiating purposes only.”
Van Valkenburg said Thursday’s meeting with commissioners would remain open to the media and the public unless the discussion turned toward talk of litigation strategies.
“The DOJ is the one threatening the lawsuit action, and I think it’s something that needs to be discussed,” Van Valkenburg said. “We have a strategy already, and it needs to be communicated to the county commission because there could be financial implications.”
Missoula County Commissioner Michele Landquist said she expects the meeting to serve as a status update on the dispute.
She said the county has tucked away funds over the past few budget cycles to help cover a lawsuit, if the DOJ filed one.
“We always prefer to try to work things out than to end up in a lawsuit,” Landquist said. “When it comes to the county’s taxpayer dollars, that’s the method I prefer.”
Landquist said the standoff between the DOJ and the county attorney’s office may come down to the interpretation of a higher court.
She also said she hopes Thursday’s meeting with Van Valkenburg can remain open to the public.
“It’s always troubling to me when a meeting has to be closed,” she said. “That means lawsuit strategies, and that’s always troubling. But if it comes down to that, that’s what we’ll do.”
The meeting is set for 11 a.m. to noon Thursday in Room 206 of the county administration building, 199 W. Pine St.
Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.