MISSOULA — Missoula County commissioners are calling on County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg to deal with what one called “a nightmare in public trust” in his battle with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Commission chair Jean Curtiss said she understands Van Valkenburg’s frustration with the DOJ over whether it has authority to investigate the county attorney’s office for its handling of sexual assault reports.
The Justice Department released a scathing report on Feb. 14 in which it decried a 17-percent prosecution rate of sexual assault cases and alleged a number of instances in which deputy county attorneys in Van Valkenburg’s office mishandled reports.
Van Valkenburg, who was on vacation when the report came through, responded with strong rebuttals and he reiterated those Wednesday in his first weekly meeting with commissioners since he returned to work.
“My concern,” Curtiss said, “is that this community has lost faith in your office, partly because of your posture and partly because of the DOJ report. I would encourage you to take time to review all those allegations and work with the (Montana) Attorney General’s Office to look for ways to improve it.”
Van Valkenburg told commissioners the DOJ report was filled with “half-truths, mistruths, and outright lies.”
“There’s no one in our office who operates in the way the DOJ describes our office as operating. We don’t work that way,” he said.
Curtiss and Commissioner Michele Landquist urged Van Valkenburg to make his campaign against the DOJ secondary to addressing the rights of victims.
The DOJ report cited unnamed deputy county attorneys who mishandled the questioning of victims, and a ratio of reports to prosecutions of just 17 percent in a recent two-year period.
Wherever the truth lies, those aren’t encouraging words for women in Missoula, Curtiss said.
“What matters to me is that victims feel safe to come forward and assure their case will not be a low priority because it’s difficult to prosecute. These are emotionally charged crimes, so I’m anxious to hear what you plan to do to build the public trust back up.”
Van Valkenburg filed suit in U.S. District Court on Feb. 11. With the commissioners’ financial support, he’s challenging the federal department’s right to investigate his office.
He said the timing of the DOJ’s release was “clearly retaliatory and absolutely unfair.”
The Justice Department has “put out a lot of bad information to the public,” he said.
“We’re simply at the mercy of the media, and I can tell you from experience, they are much more interested in having somebody say you did something wrong than you saying you did something right,” Van Valkenburg said. “And that’s just the way it is. That’s life. Life’s not fair.”
Curtiss said an accountability audit this spring in which the county attorney’s office will take part along with city and university police departments should help define what improvements can be made in the handling of sexual assault cases.
“I know some things have already been done to improve communication and that kind of thing, but there’ll be some new things there we’ll learn about how we can support victims better in our system, and that is our priority and focus. You get to do the legal stuff,” she said.
She wondered if the system couldn’t improve with earlier intervention of crime victim advocates and a better place to question victims, rather than “interrogation” rooms at the police and sheriff’s departments.
Van Valkenburg was accompanied to the late-morning meeting at the county administrative building by Deputy County Attorney Jennifer Clark.
She told commissioners the office has been trying to determine who the deputy county attorneys were who were cited in the DOJ report, including one who allegedly told a mother of a reported victim that “boys will be boys” and another who quoted Bible verses to a victim in a manner that the woman felt discouraged from pressing charges.
“I think one of our frustrations is the confidential nature of these cases that we can’t defend ourselves and explain what happened in private conversation,” Clark said. “We are going through the letter and trying to identify where this came from and we don’t have much information to go on to do that.”
Word came down later Wednesday that the Department of Justice has committed to sharing information from its investigation into the Missoula County Attorney’s Office with Montana Attorney General Tim Fox.
That won’t change Van Valkenburg’s tactics in pursuit of a declaratory judgment against the DOJ, he said. The Department has 60 days from the Feb. 11 filing to respond. Commissioners dedicated $50,000 from county coffers to pay an independent attorney from Missoula to pursue the case.
Meanwhile, Van Valkenburg blasted the findings of the DOJ report.
“It’s so unfair it’s unbelievable. Why anybody would believe it is beyond me, except that they’re predisposed to believe it,” he said.
He was described by one commissioner as “a sitting duck” when the allegations came down.
“A sitting duck with a gun in my hand,” Van Valkenburg amended with a smile.