“We continue to believe that we can accomplish more by working together on cost-effective, common-sense reform measures, rather than engaging in expensive and time-consuming litigation,” Cotter said.
Cotter wrote the commissioners on Feb. 26 – the same day the commissioners met with Van Valkenburg and expressed their concern that the “community has lost faith” in the office following a critical Feb. 14 report by the DOJ.
That document outlined deficiencies in Missoula County prosecutors’ handling of sexual assault cases, including a 17 percent prosecution rate of sexual assault cases.
In the letter, Cotter describes the success the DOJ has had with the University of Montana and the Missoula Police Department following similar reports on their work with victims of sexual assault.
The DOJ launched investigations into UM, the city and county in 2012. Both Missoula police and the UM Office of Public Safety entered into agreements with the Justice Department in May 2013, agreeing to changes in their handling of sexual assault reports.
“In contrast, the county attorney has refused to cooperate with our investigation from the outset,” Cotter wrote. “We have met with the county attorney several times and taken measures to address his expressed concerns regarding our investigation.”
The standoff between the DOJ and Van Valkenburg became even more entrenched at the beginning of the year, when Van Valkenburg sent a letter to the DOJ – rejecting their proposed settlement agreement and giving them two weeks to enter into “an amicable agreement” before he filed suit against the DOJ. When the Justice Department remained silent, Van Valkenburg filed for declaratory judgment in Missoula’s U.S. District Court, asking a federal judge to rule on whether the DOJ has jurisdiction over his office.
And the county commissioners furnished Van Valkenburg in his endeavors – releasing $50,000 of county funds for him to hire outside counsel to pursue the lawsuit.
Cotter wrote in his letter that the cost of litigation will “ultimately far outstrip the cost of reform.”
“We believe that the quickest and most effective way to protect women and improve the county attorney’s handling of sexual assault is a cooperative agreement,” Cotter wrote.
Commission Chair Jean Curtiss said Wednesday that her office is in the process of crafting a response to Cotter’s request, but said it’s not the commissioners’ responsibility to direct the affairs of another publicly elected official.
Instead, she said the DOJ should contact Montana Attorney General Tim Fox to work out an agreement, although that’s not likely.
“Between Fred and Mr. Cotter … I don’t think either one of them wants to settle,” Curtiss said.
In February, it also came to light the DOJ had entered into an agreement with former Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock, who is now governor, in 2012. Outlined in two letters, the agreement stipulated that the DOJ would share the findings of its investigations with the office.
During last week’s meeting with Van Valkenburg, Commissioner Michele Landquist said commissioners should have known about the agreement before releasing the funds Van Valkenburg requested to file suit against the DOJ.
“I can’t honestly say, knowing this, that I do support you going forward with any declaratory action,” she said at the meeting.
She said she saw the agreement as the attorney general giving the Justice Department the authority to investigate the County Attorney’s Office.
But Van Valkenburg, who has maintained that he has the support of both Bullock and Fox, said he didn’t see the letters as anything “of great consequence.”
Further, he denied attempting to mislead the commissioners by not providing them with copies of the agreement between
Landquist wouldn’t respond to questions Wednesday, but said in an email to the Missoulian that “this is a matter we take very seriously and we are working on our reply.