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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.

Local Democrats are considering a resolution that calls on high-profile members of their own party – County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg and the county commissioners – to focus on improving services for victims rather than draining county resources on a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice.

As drafted, the resolution calls on the three commissioners, all Democrats, “to withdraw funding for a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice and to publicly call on the Missoula County attorney to cooperate with the department to improve its response to sexual assault cases.”

The proposed language also calls on the county attorney to cooperate with the DOJ.

“The debate we’re having is whether there is sufficient reason to be concerned the lawsuit is a distraction from the opportunity to improve services to victims,” Dave Kendall, chairman of the Missoula County Democrats, said Wednesday.

The Missoula Democratic Central Committee discussed the resolution this week and plans to take up a revised version on April 8. The draft notes the Montana Democratic Platform supports equality for women and identifies sexual assault as a pervasive problem; it references a recent report from the DOJ that “uncovered evidence of a disturbing pattern of deficiencies in the handling of (sexual assault) cases by the Missoula County Attorney’s Office.”

Van Valkenburg did not attend the meeting, but in an email to Kendall, he defended his record as both the county attorney and former legislator of nearly 20 years who “championed the cause of women on numerous occasions.” He disputed the finding that his department “places the safety of all women in Missoula at risk.”

“The DOJ’s claim is almost entirely untrue,” wrote Van Valkenburg in a response to Kendall. “Surely the Party cares about the truth and doesn’t want to throw its support behind untrue allegations of misconduct.”

In the email, Van Valkenburg also defended his decision to question whether the U.S. Department of Justice has any authority over his office: “Our concern about the authority and jurisdiction of the DOJ is no less important than any citizen’s right to due process.”

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“Illegal threats made by powerful interests need to be resisted by the citizenry or the illegal threats will be repeated and escalate ... ,” Van Valkenburg wrote. “What I am doing by taking the DOJ to court is important and necessary.”

Commission Chairwoman Jean Curtiss could not be reached for comment late Wednesday afternoon.

Commissioners, however, have defended their record of serving victims of violent crime, and Curtiss earlier urged Van Valkenburg to shore up his office: “My concern is that this community has lost faith in your office, partly because of your posture and partly because of the DOJ report.”

Despite the reprimand, the commissioners unanimously approved Van Valkenburg’s request for $50,000 to spend on the lawsuit and placed no conditions on loosening the purse strings. Commissioner Michele Landquist later questioned her decision after receiving more information (see related story).

At its recent meeting, Democrats discussed the tone of the resolution as well as augmenting it to include some of the proactive steps the county has taken, Kendall said. For instance, in a letter this week to Michael Cotter, U.S. attorney for the District of Montana, commissioners noted they are acting on their responsibilities to provide services to victims, such as the construction of a “soft” interview room for victims of sexual violence.

As it moves forward, the Democratic party plans to focus on how the incoming county attorney will proceed, Kendall said. Van Valkenburg isn’t seeking another term; three Democrats are vying for the post, and voters will likely select the victor in the June primary since no Republican filed for the office.

The Democrats will take up a revised resolution at their 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday, April 8, in Council Chambers, Kendall said: “We had a vigorous debate, and there were a lot of issues that still needed to be addressed.”

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Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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