MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) - Missoula County commissioners told County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg he needs to work to rebuild the public's trust in his office after a U.S. Department of Justice report said its investigators found an "institutionalized indifference to crimes of sexual violence" in the office.
The report was released on Feb. 14, just days after the county filed a lawsuit asking a judge to determine whether the agency has the authority to investigate the county attorney's office and how it handles prosecution of sexual assault cases. Van Valkenburg has refused to cooperate with the investigation since it was announced in May 2012. The DOJ investigated city police, the sheriff's office and the University of Montana campus police and reached agreements that required additional training and policy changes.
"My concern," Commissioner Jean Curtiss said Wednesday, "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."
Curtiss and Commissioner Michele Landquist urged Van Valkenburg to make his case against the Justice Department secondary to addressing the rights of victims, the Missoulian (http://bit.ly/1dEgrX3) reported.
"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," Curtiss said.
Van Valkenburg said the timing of the DOJ report's release was "clearly retaliatory and absolutely unfair," the DOJ "put out a lot of bad information to the public," and he still plans to move forward with the lawsuit seeking to clarify if the Justice Department has any authority to investigate his office.
The report said investigators found evidence that there were rape cases the county attorney's office declined to prosecute despite having confessions and other evidence. It also said the office declined to prosecute nearly every case of nonstranger assault involving an adult female victim who was under the influence of drugs or alcohol or when the accuser had a physical or mental disability. The DOJ interviewed 30 women, many of whom said they weren't informed about the status of their cases or about potential plea agreements.
The DOJ report said the actions of the county attorney's office makes victims less likely to come forward and leaves criminals on the streets.
"There is no one in our office who operates in the way the DOJ describes our office as operating," Van Valkenburg told commissioners.
Deputy County Attorney Jennifer Clark told commissioners the office has been trying to determine which deputy county attorneys were cited in the DOJ report, including one who reportedly told the mother of a 5-year-old victim that "boys will be boys." However, she said because of the confidential nature of the cases, they don't have much information to go on.
Meanwhile, the DOJ has agreed to a request from Attorney General Tim Fox to turn over to his office evidence in sexual assault cases the agency believes the Missoula County attorney's office should have prosecuted but didn't, spokesman John Barnes said. Fox asked for the information last week, citing a 2012 agreement between then-Attorney General Steve Bullock and the DOJ.
Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com