MISSOULA — Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg received a national award Sunday for his stand against the U.S. Justice Department’s two-year attempt to investigate his office, alleging local prosecutors mishandled sexual assault cases.
The award was presented to Van Valkenburg at the National District Attorney Association board meeting in Denver by the board’s president, Henry Garza, who selected Van Valkenburg for the honor.
Garza didn’t respond to a request for comment. But as of Monday, Beadle County, South Dakota, prosecutor Michael Moore is the association’s president.
Moore explained that Van Valkenburg was one of four people to receive the President’s Award, but he was the only elected prosecutor to receive the award for his “perseverance and overcoming obstacles.” He said Van Valkenburg and the three other awardees received a standing ovation at the conference.
Van Valkenburg’s reaction to the USDOJ set a precedent for future relationships between the federal government and locally elected county attorneys, Moore explained.
“I think it showed a lot of courage on his part to take that stance, and the NDAA had written a letter supporting his stance previous to this,” he said.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, who was at the conference Sunday, agreed with Moore.
The National District Attorney Association sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, asserting the DOJ didn’t have authority over the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and called for the department to cease its investigation.
“(The NDAA) had supported Fred in his position from the beginning of the standoff … so this was a very important issue nationally for all prosecutors, because never before had the DOJ tried to assert authority in this way,” Fox said Monday.
Van Valkenburg, in turn, was grateful for the national recognition.
“I appreciate the recognition by the NDAA,” Van Valkenburg wrote in an email to the Missoulian. “One of the most important things about challenging the DOJ’s legal authority to investigate our office was to try and make sure other prosecutors were not subjected to the kind of illegal and unfair attacks we were forced to endure.”
The DOJ initiated its investigation in 2012, but Van Valkenburg adamantly refused to allow the federal department access to his office. Van Valkenburg repeatedly stated the DOJ didn’t have the authority to interfere with a local county attorney’s prosecutorial discretion.
The standoff came to a head when Van Valkenburg filed suit against the Justice Department on Feb. 11, asking a federal judge to rule on whether the Justice Department had jurisdiction over his office.
Several days later, the Justice Department fired back, sending an infamous “Valentine’s Day letter” to media outlets, outlining allegations against Van Valkenburg’s office. The letter included statements allegedly made by Missoula County prosecutors to sexual assault victims and their families, including “boys will be boys” and quoting Bible verses that cast blame on the victim.
Fox intervened this spring and served as a mediator between Van Valkenburg and the Justice Department. In June, all parties, including U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter and the Missoula County commissioners, signed an agreement that mandates the county attorney to make certain internal changes, among them employing a victim-witness coordinator and an outside technical adviser.
But the agreement makes clear that the Montana attorney general – not his federal counterpart – has jurisdiction over the local office and will oversee any changes.
Van Valkenburg agreed to drop the federal lawsuit in accordance with the agreement.
Fox said Monday that his office “will take the lessons we have learned here” and apply them across the state to assist other county attorneys.
“The main goal now is to do everything we can to protect the rights of victims of sexual crimes,” Fox said.