Montana Attorney General Tim Fox’s office said this week that it aims to broker a deal between embattled Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg and the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve claims that local prosecutors unlawfully failed to pursue sexual assault reports.
“Our office is trying to work to a good resolution in this issue,” says John Barnes, Fox’s communication director. “We’re spending a lot of time on this.”
This week’s announcement marks the latest development in a two-year battle between the DOJ and Van Valkenburg over how local prosecutors handled sexual assault claims during a four-year period.
Amid claims from the DOJ that the Missoula County Attorney’s Office badly botched sexual assault prosecutions, Van Valkenburg has maintained his office did nothing wrong. He says further that the DOJ has no authority to investigate an elected county attorney. On Feb. 11, Van Valkenburg took that argument to court, asking a federal court judge to order the federal government to cease its investigation of his office.
Rather than backing off, the DOJ raised the stakes when it releasing a letter to the public on Feb. 14 that stated a 10-month investigation into Van Valkenburg’s office revealed “substantial evidence” suggesting county prosecutors discriminate against female sexual assault victims and that the county’s shortcomings put “all women in Missoula at risk.”
Barnes says the AG’s office hopes to end the standoff between Van Valkenburg and the feds by facilitating dialogue between the two. “Our office is trying to work toward a good resolution in this issue,” Barnes says.
It appears the DOJ is on board with negotiations, as the U.S. Attorney for the State of Montana, Michael Cotter, today asked a federal court judge to provide additional time for the federal government to respond to Van Valkenburg’s Feb. 11 filing. According to the federal government’s request, “The parties intend to discuss the possibility of resolving amicably the subject matter of the litigation and agree that this can best be accomplished if the deadline to respond to the complaint is extended.”
As for Van Valkenburg, he says he’s willing to engage in negotiations to resolve the standoff. He adds, however, that he’s not going to accept just any terms. “It depends on what the resolution is,” he says.