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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.

Montana’s attorney general wants to see the evidence the U.S. Department of Justice dug up on the county attorney’s handling of sexual assault cases in Missoula County.

Tim Fox said a letter sent last week to Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg “raises public safety and policy issues implicating my responsibilities.”

Fox, who has statutory authority over locally elected prosecutors such as Van Valkenburg, wrote Montana U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter on Thursday asking that federal investigators forward to his office all evidence and information pertaining to sexual assault cases in Missoula County they believe should have been prosecuted.

“All confidential or private information provided to this office will be subject to applicable state and federal laws,” Fox assured.

Van Valkenburg has steadfastly refused to cooperate with the DOJ investigation and challenged the department’s authority to investigate his office. Last week, in a move supported financially by Missoula County commissioners, he filed in U.S. District Court a request for declaratory judgment to decide if the DOJ has such jurisdiction.

Fox cited in his letter to Cotter an agreement struck in June 2012 between his predecessor as attorney general, Gov. Steve Bullock, and Cotter’s office.

He said his office understood that federal investigators would refer evidence of newly discovered allegations of sexual assaults or new evidence about previously known allegations to the state to consider if prosecution was warranted.

“I assume that these cases were not referred to our office for review during the course of USDOJ’s investigation because there was no new evidence,” Fox wrote. “However, I am extremely concerned about allegations of gender discrimination and bias, and I am even more concerned about USDOJ’s determination that there are victims of crime who may have been wronged and denied justice, and that there are criminals who have not received the just punishment they deserve.”

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Information in the DOJ’s letter was not shared with Fox’s office before it was sent to Van Valkenburg.

“We obtained a copy … off of an Internet news site,” he said.

While the DOJ’s letter said it doesn’t “seek to second guess” prosecutors’ decisions on whether to charge sexual assault crimes, it concludes that Van Valkenburg’s office “often failed to take steps necessary to develop sexual assault cases properly so that informed and fair prosecutorial assessments can be made,” Fox said.

Spokeswoman Emily Pierce said Friday afternoon the Justice Department received Fox’s letter late Thursday night and is reviewing it.

“We look forward to continuing our cooperative relationship with the state attorney general, and we will be in touch with him soon to discuss the information he has requested,” Pierce said in an email.

Van Valkenburg is on vacation this week and wasn’t available for comment Friday. Deputy Missoula County Attorney Jennifer Clark said the office was told about Fox’s letter before he sent it.

“It sounds like they had a deal with the DOJ about what their job is, and the DOJ assured them that the investigation into our office wasn’t about handling of cases like prosecutorial discretion or judging whether or not cases should or should not be charged. But clearly in their letter they stated otherwise,” Clark said. “It sounds like the Attorney General’s Office wasn’t apprised of that.”

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Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at (406) 523-5266 or by email at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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