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The Missoula County commissioners unanimously approved releasing $50,000 of county funds Tuesday for the Missoula County Attorney’s Office to file suit against the U.S. Department of Justice.

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said he will seek a ruling from a federal judge on whether the DOJ has any jurisdiction over his office or its handling of cases.

The standoff between the county attorney and the DOJ began after federal officials accused the County Attorney’s Office of discriminating against victims of sexual assault – a claim that Van Valkenburg has firmly disputed.

The DOJ suggested a settlement agreement in December, after nearly 20 months of political stalemate, but Van Valkenburg rejected the proposal and fired back with a letter asserting his own stipulations.

Van Valkenburg has repeatedly refused to allow the DOJ access to his office, saying the DOJ has not provided any proof that his office violated the civil rights of sexual assault victims or discriminated against them.

On Tuesday, he said using the $50,000 to file a pre-emptive strike against the DOJ is the most efficient expenditure of county funds. The result, he said, will be a judicial ruling that the county attorney has prosecutorial immunity. Unlike law enforcement, Van Valkenburg said the County Attorney’s Office isn’t subject to DOJ oversight.

“The approach to seek a declaratory judgment is very well thought out and researched,” he said during Tuesday’s morning meeting with commissioners.

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The vote to release the funds came after about 30 minutes of public discourse between two members of the public, Ross Best and Dana Boruch, Van Valkenburg and the commissioners.

Boruch and Best voiced their disapproval and pleaded with the commission to delay action.

“Once you open those purse strings, get ready to continue to do so,” Boruch said. “To think that $50,000 is sufficient ... it just makes absolutely no sense.”

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The rape issue, she argued isn’t an elaborate plot to paint local government in a negative light.

Van Valkenburg is confident that a federal judge will rule in his favor, and even told commissioners there may be money left over to return to the county.

In the event that extra funds are needed, Van Valkenburg said he would seek money from the county general fund.

Van Valkenburg said the National District Attorneys Association is not supporting him financially in the lawsuit, but that organization, along with Attorney General Tim Fox and Gov. Steve Bullock, are “very supportive” of his actions.

On Jan. 9, Van Valkenburg gave the DOJ two weeks to enter into an “amicable” agreement with his office, to avoid a lawsuit. The DOJ has not responded.

In its own proposed settlement, the Department of Justice demanded multiple changes in the County Attorney’s Office, including hiring an in-house victim advocate, hiring internal investigators and designating an unspecified number of prosecutors to solely deal with sexual assault crimes.

Van Valkenburg said U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter hand-delivered the proposal and gave the county attorney two days to respond.

Van Valkenburg said the DOJ will not negotiate the terms of the agreement, titled a “For Negotiation Purposes Only Draft Outline of Proposed Agreement between the United States and Missoula County Attorney’s Office.”

Van Valkenburg said he was pleased with the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting with the commissioners and said most of his constituents agree with his actions.

He plans to retain Natasha Jones from the Boone Karlberg law firm as his counsel and request a declaratory judgment in federal court in the next two to three weeks.

The Department of Justice has refused repeated requests for comment.

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

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