Missoula County Attorney Tells Justice Department It's Wrong

Accused of bias against female victims of sex crimes, the Missoula county attorney turned around and accused the Justice Department of bully tactics. DOJ officials showed up in Missoula two years ago.

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The U.S. Justice Department says the college town of Missoula, Montana has a rape problem. Specifically, it says authorities there have not been serious enough about prosecuting sexual assault.

Last year, the city and the University of Montana agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department and make reforms. But not the county attorney. He says Missoula has been unfairly singled out and he's standing up to what he calls federal bullying.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The Justice Department is serious about Missoula. This is Jocelyn Samuels, head of the department's civil rights division.

JOCELYN SAMUELS: The county attorney is simply not doing what needs to be done to protect the safety of Missoula women and to ensure that sexual assault crimes are adequately prosecuted and perpetrators are held accountable.

KASTE: Justice put the county attorney on notice last month with a letter - a public letter, and it was something of a bombshell. It accused county prosecutors of having animus toward women victims. It said one unnamed victim's mother was told that boys will be boys. Another victim was quoted a Bible passage. Jennifer Clark is the chief criminal deputy county attorney.

(LAUGHTER)

JENNIFER CLARK: I don't want to say it makes me laugh, but it's really - if you knew our office, we have eleven attorneys, seven of them are women, and we're the ones taking a lot of these cases. In my opinion there's absolutely no gender bias in our office.

KASTE: And it's not just the people in the office who are perplexed. Kim Brown Campbell used to work for Missoula's crime victim advocate program. Now she runs a program to prevent assault at the University of Montana. Make no mistake, she's glad that the Feds are focusing on sexual violence in Missoula.

KIM BROWN CAMPBELL: Good things have really come of it, and good changes have been made.

KASTE: But does she think the Feds are right about county prosecutors? Are they really biased against women victims?

CAMPBELL: You know, certainly they have evidence, and they've, you know, found what they needed to find, or so they think. But at the same time I do feel like you, you know, you could almost get that from any other community.

KASTE: A lot of the ambivalence in Missoula can be traced back to the county attorney himself, Fred Van Valkenburg. Occasionally described as a curmudgeon, he's been at war with the Justice Department since it showed up in Missoula two years ago.

FRED VAN VALKENBURG: Their claims are bogus, they're wrong, and that's what I've got to say about them.

KASTE: This isn't a partisan thing. Van Valkenburg is a Democrat. He even compares his situation to the swift-boating of John Kerry. He says other jurisdictions have sex crime prosecution rates that are comparable to Missoula's, but he says this isn't even about Missoula anymore.

VALKENBURG: I have a duty to virtually every prosecutor in America to challenge their authority to do this, or everyone will have to put up with this.

KASTE: He's suing to block Justice Department actions against his office - basically he's trying test the civil rights division's ability to investigate local prosecutors like him.

University of Michigan law professor Samuel Bagenstos used to work for the division, and he's seen this kind of anger before. Yeah, he says, communities don't like being singled out as examples, but that's the system.

SAMUEL BAGENSTOS: When the Justice Department brings these law enforcement misconduct cases and reaches settlement agreements, those settlement agreements with a few jurisdictions have a ripple effect across the country.

KASTE: Right now the Missoula county attorney and the civil rights division each say the other is refusing to negotiate, and it may be that neither side can now afford to be seen to back down. Still, there is one possible out: Van Valkenburg says he's not running for re-election.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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