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DOJ has no authority over office of county attorney

DOJ has no authority over office of county attorney

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The Missoulian editorial board wants the Missoula County Attorney’s Office to follow the example of the University of Montana and the city of Missoula and cooperate with the Department of Justice (editorial, May 19). Apparently it does not matter to the Missoulian that the DOJ has, at best, questionable authority to investigate the county attorney’s office and even refuses to the tell the county attorney what the office has allegedly done wrong.

What if the Missoulian were in similar situation? Consider how the Missoulian would react if the District of Columbia bar association announced that it had received complaints from anonymous individuals that the Missoulian has been violating criminal defendants’ rights to a fair trial by publishing stories about the charges against them. Then, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office suggests the Missoulian cooperate with the D.C. bar association and agree to do whatever the D.C. bar association asks of the Missoulian, even though the D.C. bar association had no legal authority to make those requests. Would the Missoulian agree? I doubt it and I would never urge the Missoulian to do so. Why should our office be treated differently?

If UM and the city think it’s in their best interests to cooperate with the DOJ and enter into settlement agreements with the DOJ, that’s their business and I defer to their judgment. However, at this point, it is not in the interests of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, the citizens of Missoula County or even victims of sexual assault for our office to cooperate with the DOJ, and certainly not to enter into the type of settlement agreement that UM and the city have done. There is clear legal authority for the DOJ to investigate police agencies and educational institutions. In addition, the city and the university receive substantial amounts of federal money and are therefore subject to fiscal accountability of those funds. The county attorney’s office receives no federal funding. Further, UM and the city have agreed to pay monitoring costs for up to two years. If the county attorney’s office were to do the same, taxes would have to be raised or we’d have to cut our current budget to do so. Either way, victims or taxpayers would suffer. Also, the DOJ agrees that it has never previously attempted to investigate a local prosecutor’s office. Agreeing to “cooperate” with the DOJ will establish an intimidating precedent that could adversely affect every prosecutor in America. Finally, even a year after the DOJ started this investigation, its lawyers refuse to acknowledge U.S. Supreme Court case law that prohibits anyone from suing a prosecutor so as to try and interfere with the exercise of the prosecutor’s discretion in the essential functions of his or her office.

I am accountable to the voters of Missoula County. The Montana Attorney General has the right to exercise supervisory control over my office. I work closely with sexual assault victims, detectives, uniformed officers, Missoula First Step providers, crime victim advocates and judges. While we don’t always agree on every issue, virtually all of them respect me and the attorneys who work in my office on sexual assault cases. Lastly, contrary to what was stated in the DOJ’s Findings Letter about the city police, our office has never received a complaint from the city police saying that officers were “frustrated” by the county’s attorney’s office lack of action in sexual assault cases. Nonetheless, I have already agreed to work together with Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir to eliminate any communications problems between his officers and our office.

In conclusion, let me assure everyone that once the DOJ acknowledges and respects both the law and the good work the county attorney’s office has done on sexual assault cases and agrees not to impose new burdens on Missoula County taxpayers or force a reduction in services to victims, we would be happy to cooperate and put this sad chapter in Missoula’s history to rest.

Fred Van Valkenburg is Missoula’s county attorney.

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