Sunday, September 24, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Sunday, September 24, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Montana D.A. Fights U.S. Sex Bias Probe

MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) - A Montana county prosecutor sued the U.S. Attorney General, claiming Uncle Sam has no authority to investigate or prosecute his office for alleged bias against sexual assaults on women.

Missouri County Attorney Fred Van Valkenberg sued Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., J.S. Attorney Michael Cotter of Idaho, two high-ranking officials in Holder's office, and the Department of Justice itself, in Federal Court.

Valkenberg claims the defendants do not have the authority to investigate him for discrimination in the crimes against women.

In April 2012, defendant Cotter and then-Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez notified the Missoula County Attorney's Office of their intention to investigate the office under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act.

The investigation was made public May 2, the DOJ saying it was "the result of the County Attorney's Office's failure to investigate or prosecute sexual assaults against women because of their gender or in a manner that has a disparate impact on women," according to Valkenberg's request for declaratory judgment.

Valkenberg insists in his 19-page lawsuit that: "The county Attorney's Office does not and has not discriminated in its prosecution of sexual assault cases, whether allegations of sexual assault are made by men or women."

He claims that the defendants have refused to cite any specific information to support the claim.

"Over the past year and a half, the County Attorney's Office has corresponded with the defendants on numerous occasions, asking them to identify what evidence they have that shows the County Attorney's Office has discriminated in its prosecution of sexual assault cases or otherwise violated any person's civil rights," the complaint states. "They have provided no evidence."

Valkenberg's attorney, Natasha Prizing Jones, told Courthouse News on Wednesday the DOJ has not provided "case-specific information" about what prompted the DOJ's investigation, but noted a 2012 DOJ investigation of the University of Montana, its campus security and the Missoula Police Department, involving several campus sex crimes.

DOJ lawyers looked at more than 350 sexual assault reports taken by the Missoula Police Department between 2008 and 2012. They concluded that in some cases, women were manipulated into believing the assault was their fault and that police failed to obtain timely, credible statements from suspects or witnesses, the Great Falls Tribune reported Wednesday.

The newspaper added: "The investigation also found that the county's attorney's office generally did not provide adequate explanation for not pursuing charges and that police, at times, didn't determine or adequately convey to the county attorney's office if a woman might not have been able to consent to sex because she was incapacitated by alcohol or drugs."

Missoula Police and University of Montana campus security agreed to make policy changes and conduct more training, Valkenberg says in his lawsuit.

A settlement agreement calling for additional office personnel and creation of a victim's advocacy unit was extended to the Missoula's County Attorney's Office, but Valkenberg reiterated his position that the DOJ does not have the authority to make the demand.

"There exists a substantial controversy because the defendants have made repeated, intrusive demands on the county attorney and his office, and continue to threaten a lawsuit if he and his office do not fully cooperate with the defendants' unlawful investigation and demands," the lawsuit states. "The defendants have provided no evidence to support their discrimination allegations and have failed to provide any support for their purported authority for the investigation and threatened lawsuit."

Attorney Jones says local prosecutors are governed by the state attorney general, not the DOJ.

"The DOJ is exceeding and abusing its statutory and constitutional authority," Jones said in the interview. "There is no basis within current statutes or interpretation of those statutes that would expand the scope of authority to a local prosecutor's office."

She said the additional personnel would cost "hundreds of thousands of dollars on an annual basis" for taxpayers and that some services would be duplicated.

"They want various changes, including hiring more staff, investigators, and the creation of crime victims advocacy, but there is already a separate advocacy organization in place, which is separate from the attorney's office, so they are asking us to duplicate a service," Jones said.

She said the county attorney's office is not guilty of discrimination and cannot speculate on why it seems to have become a DOJ target.

"The only thing I can say is there is a political agenda that has been published by the White House, initiating an effort to assist victims of violence, which is a noble effort, but that is a separate issue and we want a court to clarify whether the government has the authority to investigate the attorney's office," she said.

On Jan. 22, President Barack Obama announced an initiative to combat sexual assault, particularly on college campuses.

Valkenberg's Office also is named as a defendant.

Categories / Uncategorized

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.