Missoula County Attorney: Office willing to scrutinize handling of sex assault cases

2013-06-11T10:09:00Z 2014-11-06T12:26:05Z Missoula County Attorney: Office willing to scrutinize handling of sex assault casesBy KEILA SZPALLER Missoulian The Billings Gazette
June 11, 2013 10:09 am  • 

MISSOULA — Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg is willing to scrutinize the way his office handles sexual assault and rape cases – “but not with the threat of a lawsuit, not with a gun to my head.”

“I can tell you that we have started that process. We think that we’ve got some information. I don’t think that it’s complete at this point. We need to do further work on it. Nobody is perfect,” Van Valkenburg said.

The county attorney made his remarks Monday to more than 50 people who attended a luncheon at the DoubleTree Hotel hosted by City Club Missoula, which has a mission to inform and inspire citizens on vital issues. In his talk and in response to questions from the audience, Van Valkenburg:

• Shared some of his office’s experience with sexual assault and rape cases in recent years.

• Discussed the way his office, “a pretty big law firm,” operates in general.

• Continued to blame the Missoulian for fomenting a national story about rape in Missoula.

• Reiterated his continued refusal to cooperate with a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into possible gender discrimination by his office and blasted the probe as politically motivated. The DOJ also reviewed practices by the Missoula Police Department and the University of Montana, which complied and signed contracts outlining changes to policies and procedures.

Tom Camel, a victim advocate based in Ronan, questioned Van Valkenburg’s absolute unwillingness to allow the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to review his office’s practices. Camel, who has sat on various mental health boards in Montana, said the county attorney should rise above the politics to obtain helpful information.

“It seems like it would be a good assessment to do anyway,” Camel said.

Van Valkenburg agreed. He said the process already has begun, although he did not discuss findings or a deadline for completion.

The county attorney has disputed the Department of Justice’s authority to investigate his office, but he also said the DOJ does have clear jurisdiction over its own armed services. Yet the same investigators “don’t seem to be terribly concerned about the vast number of sex assaults occurring in the United States military.”

“I question their sincerity in terms of really wanting to improve the system,” Van Valkenburg said.

In fact, Van Valkenburg, who described himself as a “hard-core” liberal Democrat, said the federal department announced its investigation in 2012, a presidential election year, to score points for President Barack Obama, who was seeking a second term. But he said its actions, from subpoenaing reporters to parachuting into Missoula, do the president a disservice.

“The people in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division thought somehow they were doing the administration a favor by showing they cared more about women than other people cared,” said Van Valkenburg, who has held office since 1978.

***

At the luncheon, Van Valkenburg also shared his office’s experience with sexual assault cases and blamed the Missoulian for unfairly creating a national story about rape in Missoula. He said he has never had anyone tell him that the number of sexual offense cases investigated and referred to his office are “unusual or out of proportion” with what any community sees.

In December 2010, police investigated allegations of gang rape and referred the case to the county prosecutor, Van Valkenburg said. One of his deputies reviewed the case and determined the office did not have probable cause, especially because the alleged victim herself agreed “she never really spoke out saying she was not consenting.”

“That deputy reviewed the case and said, ‘We have nothing to prosecute here. The evidence is so weak,’ ” Van Valkenburg said.

In early 2011, the County Attorney’s Office made the decision to decline to prosecute, he said. Van Valkenburg said the matter remained dormant until December 2011, when the Missoulian published a series of stories about allegations of sexual assault both on and off campus, some allegedly by University of Montana football players.

His office was aware of only the December 2010 incident, Van Valkenburg said. He said none of the other cases were referred to his office, and he does not believe any of them were referred to law enforcement either.

“But they did provide more kind of grist for the mill in terms of the Missoulian’s coverage with respect to issues involving rape, sexual assault and the football team,” Van Valkenburg said.

The county attorney’s office “almost immediately” charged former Grizzlies running back Beau Donaldson when the victim reported in December 2011 that Donaldson raped her. The incident had taken place roughly one year earlier; in September 2012, Donaldson pleaded guilty to the charge and is serving 30 years in the Montana State Prison, with 20 suspended.

In February 2012, an incident occurred that led to rape charges being filed against Grizzlies quarterback Jordan Johnson, who was acquitted this year, Van Valkenburg said. Even though the prosecutors lost the case, the lawyers in his office agreed they had a “winnable” – albeit difficult – case.

“My entire staff reviewed that case. It was a unanimous agreement that we had sufficient evidence to proceed,” Van Valkenburg said.

***

In a question-and-answer session, Jim Cook asked Van Valkenburg if he felt pressure to bring charges against Johnson, given the contentious atmosphere in Missoula and the ongoing federal inquiry.

“I can’t say that the atmosphere in Missoula didn’t operate in my brain somewhere,” Van Valkenburg said.

On the other hand, he said, it would have been difficult to decide not to charge Johnson, who was reinstated to the football team following his acquittal. Multiple lawyers who reviewed the case believed the prosecution could prevail, he said.

“I honestly do not think we filed charges because the DOJ investigation was pending,” Van Valkenburg said. And, he added, “I don’t give a damn what they think about anything.”

David Paoli, who with lawyer Kirsten Pabst successfully defended Johnson in Missoula County District Court, asked how politics played into the case. Van Valkenburg had said when Gov. Steve Bullock was attorney general, he was not willing to get involved with the DOJ because of “election year politics.”

Under the same leadership, though, the Montana Attorney General’s Office provided a lawyer to assist the Missoula County Attorney’s Office in the rape trial against Paoli’s client: “Where do the politics mesh on that situation?” Paoli said.

For one thing, Van Valkenburg said, the state has a longstanding policy to provide such assistance. Secondly, he said, the decision to authorize help was made by an “underling,” and Bullock was not personally involved.

“I don’t think there’s any politics involved at all in the Jordan Johnson case,” Van Valkenburg said.

But he said he believes politics are involved in the Department of Justice investigation. Last year, the DOJ demanded information from his office within 25 days, and Van Valkenburg said it is significant that 13 months later, he still hasn’t agreed to their demands, and the federal government still haven’t gone to court.

“In my mind, these guys have never run into somebody who told them ‘no,’ who said, ‘We’re not going to take it. We’re not going to just roll over and play your game,’ ” he said.

***

The most serious cases, such as homicides and rapes, get the most attention, but Van Valkenburg said his office also prosecutes traffic offenses. As part of his talk, he described his office as “a pretty big law firm” with 17 deputy county attorneys, 13 staff members, and himself.

Missoula County does “a pretty significant amount of trial work” compared to other Montana counties, although Yellowstone County might have more, he said. His lawyers each handle 60 to 150 cases at once, and as part of the tradition at the local county attorney’s office, he himself carries a caseload of 25 to 40 cases at a time, fewer than his staff but enough to stay in touch with the way the system is working.

His top responsibility, Van Valkenburg said, is to support his staff so they can work autonomously and make independent decisions: “That’s I think the No. 1 job of a leader is to motivate those who are working on behalf of the office.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Follow The Billings Gazette

Popular Stories

Get weekly ads via e-mail

Featured Businesses