The Missoula County commissioners have been asked to add $100,000 to next year’s budget as a hedge against possible fallout from a U.S. Justice Department investigation into the County Attorney’s Office.
“We may have some risk here and we’re trying to plan for it,” Chief Administrative Officer Dale Bickell said Friday.
In May, the Justice Department announced an investigation into how the County Attorney’s Office, along with the Missoula Police Department and the University of Montana police, handle reports of rape and sexual assault.
But County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg has said he won’t cooperate, contending the Justice Department has no authority to investigate his office.
The federal investigation stems from a situation that escalated over several months at the University of Montana, where in December two students allegedly were gang-raped by other students. A UM report found allegations of other student assaults, some of them reportedly involving members of the Grizzlies football team.
The U.S. Education Department is investigating allegations of harassment, also involving the football team, while the NCAA is looking into unspecified matters related to the team.
However, the Justice Department investigation goes beyond the university and includes all rape and sexual assault cases in and around Missoula. Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir said his department recently turned over to DOJ the paperwork on 518 reports of rape and sexual assault over the last four years.
Bickell said Van Valkenburg’s stance leaves the county feeling that it might need to protect itself on two fronts.
“One is to cover any costs of outside counsel, should there be some sort of litigation,” he said. In late May, a Justice Department letter to Van Valkenburg said that “we remain hopeful that our offices can work cooperatively so that we can resolve our investigation promptly and, if our investigation leads to findings, avoid unnecessary litigation.”
Bickell said the money also could be used to fund any compliance agreement between the Justice Department and the county, should their differences be resolved. The $100,000 request was among $6.4 million in budget “enhancement requests” presented to commissioners on Friday.
Those included everything from $444 for telephone costs to $1.9 million for reconstruction on Upper Miller Creek Road, Bickell said.
The county’s total budget is $100 million. It’s required to keep $2 million in a reserve fund, which now totals $2.7 million.
On Friday, Van Valkenburg cited the example of the Seattle Police Department as to just how expensive dealing with the DOJ can become. The Justice Department found that agency’s officers routinely used excessive force, and ordered the city to respond by July 31 to a demand for several reforms. But Mayor Mike McGinn told Seattle’s Q13 FOX Daily earlier this week that those moves could cost the city $41 million a year.
The Seattle Police Department has more than 1,800 staffers; the Missoula Police Department has about 100.
Van Valkenburg said he’s consulted with an attorney from the Seattle Police Federation and the Seattle City Attorney’s Office about what he might expect from the Justice Department.
Sometimes, he said, “people just roll over and give them what they want, (such as) huge increases in staff and training and stuff like that.”
However, he said, he’s had no contact from the federal agency in weeks.
Meanwhile, several people have called him to express support, saying, “‘Hip, hip, hurray,’ ‘Fight ’em!’ and ‘Go Fred,’ ” he said.
If the Justice Department comes down on Missoula County the way it did on the Seattle police, $100,000 won’t be nearly enough, he said.
“But I don’t think they’re going to get their way. I think they’re off base. I think Dale’s just trying to make sure there’s something in there in the event it becomes necessary to spend money.”