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County Attorney Wants to Sue Dept. of Justice

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MISSOULA -

The Missoula County Attorney wants to sue the Department of Justice for trying to investigate the way his office handles sexual assault cases.

County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said the DOJ doesn't have the authority to control the way his office operates, and a federal judge should decide whether an investigation is legal.

It all started back in 2012.

The DOJ launched investigations into the University of Montana, Missoula Police and the county attorney's office over reported mishandling's of sexual assault cases.

UM and police have since complied with the DOJ, but Van Valkenburg said the feds should have to prove his prosecutors violated constitutional rights.

In May, Department of Justice officials said they'd be forced to file a lawsuit against Van Valkenburg if he didn't cooperate.

In order to avoid a trial, Van Valkenburg said he wants to pursue "declaratory judgment action" against the DOJ. This means he'd ask a judge in U.S. District Court to rule the DOJ can't legally investigate his-- or any other county attorney's office.

"They have never before done this to any prosecutor in America," he said.

Van Valkenburg said court proceedings would cost about $50,000-- a fund already set aside from the county's budget for a potential lawsuit.

"In this case, it's not only the right thing for this community because we're going to save some money and we're going to stand up for what's right, but we're going to do it for the rest of the country," he said.

Van Valkenburg said the DOJ sent him a draft of a settlement agreement in December that would force the county to spend a lot more money. It would require his office to hire 2-3 people to investigate incoming sexual assault cases, costing the county $300-400,000 over two years.

"There are very significant financial consequences of agreeing to what they're proposing to do."

Now, Van Valkenburg will send a response to the DOJ's settlement proposal. He'll ask they provide factual evidence his office violated the constitutional rights of sexual assault victims, something he says they've repeatedly failed to do.

He added, "We have a very professional staff, a staff that does an outstanding job that tries to do its very best in every single case."

During the meeting, a member of the County Crime Victim Advocates Office confirmed the county attorney's office has always taken their concerns over the handling of sexual assault cases seriously.

County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said Van Valkenburg has built a strong case to take the DOJ to court.

"The aggravating thing all along has been that the Department of Justice has never been clear as to what the problem is that they want us to remedy," Curtiss said.

Van Valkenburg said he hopes to resolve the dispute within the next six months.

He'll meet with county commissioners at a later date, after he's sent his response to the Department of Justice.

Commissioners would then decide whether or not to use county funds to sue the DOJ.

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