A letter from Montana U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter to Missoula County commissioners was a political tool intended to divide, County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said Wednesday.
“I think it was mostly an attempt to drive a wedge between me and the commissioners,” Van Valkenburg said at a county administrative meeting during which commissioners approved their response to Cotter.
Cotter had asked the commissioners to intercede in a stalemate between the U.S. Department of Justice and Van Valkenburg, who refuses to cooperate with the DOJ civil rights division’s investigation into his office’s handling of sexual assault reports.
The response by county commissioners, emailed to Cotter after the morning meeting, said they have no power to litigate and it’s the state attorney general’s office that supervises county attorneys.
“The statute is clear that we don’t have the authority to tell Fred in his office what to do,” Commissioner Michele Landquist said. “The Attorney General has that authority and I think this letter does put it back in their laps – the proper people to do their jobs.”
Cotter’s letter, instead of driving a wedge between the commissioners and Van Valkenburg, appeared to do just the opposite. Landquist had been critical of Van Valkenburg’s failure to reveal an agreement between the state Attorney General’s Office and the DOJ at the outset of the investigation in May 2012 and questioned her own approval of a $50,000 allocation to the county attorney to sue the DOJ.
On Wednesday, Landquist said, “We’re definitely heading in the right direction. I’m satisfied I think each one of us is getting what we wanted out of this response and it’s the right thing to do.”
The DOJ’s request did serve a purpose, commission chairwoman Jean Curtiss said. “I think it just helped us to look more deeply at what we’re doing and try to communicate it better to the public.”
A lot of that communication Wednesday revolved around money.
With TV and newspaper reporters on hand, as well as one citizen, Dana Boruch, who has been critical of Van Valkenburg’s approach, the county attorney explained his request for the $50,000, and the commissioners defended their approval of it after setting that amount aside two years ago for just such litigation.
“When I asked for the $50,000, I explained to the commission that the demands that the Department of Justice was making in terms of their proposed settlement in the case would probably cost the county $400,000 or more over the course of the next two years,” Van Valkenburg said.
“I did not feel that the demands they were making would actually improve our response to sexual assault in the community. A lot of that was going to have to go to pay somebody to monitor from the outside what was going on.”
Van Valkenburg attended the meeting with private attorney Natasha Jones, hired to lead litigation efforts in the lawsuit he filed one month earlier against Cotter and the DOJ. In response to a question by Boruch, he made clear the county commissioners are not part of the suit.
“The caption in the complaint of declaratory judgment is Fred Van Valkenburg and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office,” Van Valkenburg said. “There’s no reference to Missoula County or the county commissioners or any other entity.”
The hiring of Jones, from the Missoula law firm of Boone Karlberg, has saved more money because she represented the city in its dealings with the DOJ. That case ended in a settlement but Jones and her colleagues “developed a considerable amount of expertise in this area,” Van Valkenburg said. “They’re not starting from scratch in terms of the work they’re doing in the case.”
Had the DOJ sued his office instead of the other way around, Van Valkenburg said the costs to the county could be much higher to hire outside counsel and file all the motions connected with such a suit.
“It could be a million dollars and more expense if that were to happen,” Van Valkenburg said.
The DOJ is midway through the 60-day period it has to respond to Van Valkenburg’s suit. There’s been no word that Montana Attorney General Tim Fox has received from the DOJ evidence of new sexual assault cases in Missoula County or new evidence of existing ones that investigators uncovered in their review of Van Valkenburg’s office.
The Department of Justice committed to sharing that information two weeks ago.
On Wednesday, Curtiss read part of the response to Cotter that stressed the areas of responsibilities the commissioners have “to provide effective services to victims of violent crime.”
Among them was support of Van Valkenburg’s agreement to participate in a community assessment of sexual assault response that’s still taking shape at the Missoula Police Department.
The assessment, described by police Capt. Mike Colyer as a “10,000-foot view” of the process in Missoula, has a fuzzy timeline. Colyer said he and Janet Donahue, a former county commissioner, will travel to St. Paul, Minn., in late April and take part in a weeklong, once-a-year training session by Praxis International.
The Community Conducted Sexual Assault Response Safety and Accountability Audit is part of a settlement agreement the DOJ forged with the police department and the University of Montana.
“We really look forward to that piece that’ll help us identify things we can do better or fill gaps that might be there that we don’t realize,” Curtiss said.