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Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg is asking county commissioners to release $50,000 of public funds Tuesday to file suit against the U.S. Department of Justice for “inappropriately” interfering in the way his department prosecutes sexual assaults.

The DOJ alleged that under Van Valkenburg’s control, the county attorney’s office discriminated against victims of sexual assault – a claim that Van Valkenburg says is without merit. He has refused the DOJ any access to his office.

The commissioners will vote on the request at Tuesday’s meeting, and have in the past indicated their support for the lawsuit.

The funds were set aside last summer in anticipation of the county and the DOJ not reaching an agreement. Van Valkenburg plans to seek a declaratory judgment in federal court to prove that federal justice officials are inappropriately exerting influence over his office.

On Monday, Van Valkenburg refused to comment on the possible legal action.

The Department of Justice sent a draft proposed settlement agreement to Van Valkenburg in early December, a copy of which was released to the Missoulian Monday by Van Valkenburg.

The settlement outlines several steps the DOJ proposes the department take in order to “ensure that the County Attorney responds to sexual assault in a nondiscriminatory manner that complies with the constitution” and invites the county attorney to negotiate with the DOJ to reach an agreement.

Among those steps, the DOJ suggests more training for supervisors and prosecutors and adherence to new policies and procedures for sexual assault cases.

The draft agreement also suggests changes in the way cases are handled, including in-person meetings with complaining witnesses, an in-house victim advocate, the employment of two sexual assault investigators to assist in prosecutions, and designating specific attorneys to solely handle sexual assault cases.

On Jan. 9, Van Valkenburg responded to the proposed settlement agreement by declaring it unacceptable and giving the Department of Justice a counteroffer to enter into an agreement on his terms.

He gave the DOJ until Jan. 23 – two weeks – to respond, but as of Monday the federal department was silent.

In his letter, Van Valkenburg vehemently disputed the DOJ’s jurisdiction over the local office and argued the federal government has never provided proof that his department discriminated against victims of sexual assault and violated civil rights.

“The DOJ apparently feels that it has no duty whatsoever to set out its evidence of alleged civil rights violations and simply expects our office will bend to its will,” he wrote.

Furthermore, Van Valkenburg maintains his office already handles sexual assault cases appropriately and has cooperated with other organizations to ensure proper prosecution and response to victims.

“We have seen great progress and great success in improving trust, communication, and collaboration between agencies involved in serving sexual assault victims,” Van Valkenburg wrote.

Department of Justice public affairs officer Dena Iverson didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday.

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

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