By Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times
The U.S. Department of Justice says it has uncovered “substantial evidence” that sexism in a Montana county attorney’s office has led to prosecutors dropping rape cases and belittling victims.
In a 20-page letter sent to Missoula’s county attorney, Fred Van Valkenburg, federal attorneys said rape victims had been “treated with disrespect, not informed of the status of their case, and re-victimized by the process.”
For example, federal officials said, when one mother asked a county attorney why an adolescent boy who assaulted her 5-year-old daughter had only received two years of community service, the attorney responded, “Boys will be boys.”
Federal investigators added that Missoula prosecutors had failed to pursue “nearly every case” where a mentally or physically disabled woman claimed sexual assault, “even in cases where there was evidence such as a confession or incriminating statements by the perpetrator.”
Under the threat of a possible federal civil rights lawsuit, the letter urged the county attorney to meet with Justice Department officials to reach an agreement to reform his policies.
In response, Van Valkenburg told the Los Angeles Times that the Department of Justice’s letter sent Friday was “replete with falsities.”
He added that the public letter was a political maneuver to “poison the well” after he filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Justice last week, alleging that his office is being wrongfully investigated. He has asked a judge to block the federal investigation.
The Department of Justice letter came after nearly two years of inquiries by federal civil rights attorneys into allegations that officials in Missoula County systematically and unconstitutionally mishandled potentially dozens of sexual assault cases.
The investigation began in 2012 after allegations that rapes and gang rapes of University of Montana students — in some cases, involving university football players — were wrongfully not prosecuted.
In the Friday letter, federal investigators said they found that only 14 of 85 of the cases police referred for prosecution between 2008 and 2012 — about 16 percent — resulted in charges brought by the county prosecutor’s office.
In May, the Missoula Police Department and the University of Montana in Missoula agreed to reform their practices in handling such cases after similar federal inquiries. Both agreed to work with an independent monitor to demonstrate that they had ended “a pattern or practice of constitutional violations” in handling sexual assault cases.
Federal officials said the Missoula county attorney’s office, however, refused to cooperate with investigators and has resisted more comprehensive changes in the face of a possible federal intervention.
Van Valkenburg called those changes “costly and unnecessary” in a new lawsuit asking a judge to make a declaratory judgment that federal investigators have overstepped their bounds.
He added that federal officials have asked for confidential investigative information in their examination of the office’s rape cases.
In response to Van Valkenburg’s refusal to open up his office to Justice Department officials, federal investigators said they did the legwork on their own, interviewing several area officials and more than 30 alleged sexual assault victims or their representatives about how Missoula County handles rape cases.
The Friday letter was intended to describe the legal framework under which the Missoula County attorney’s office could be sued for civil rights violations if local officials don’t agree to make changes.
“Our investigation has uncovered evidence indicating that the County Attorney’s Office engages in a pattern or practice of gender discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and relevant statutes,” the letter said.
The letter said one attorney told a woman “all you want is revenge” while explaining why he wasn’t going to prosecute her alleged sexual assault.
In another investigation detailed in the letter, police found video footage of a man slipping something in the victim’s drink. When asked about the video later, the man said, “If I were trying to make her relax, it would be Xanax,” adding, “My memory tells me no, but I can’t argue with surveillance.”
The prosecutor’s office declined to pursue the case, citing insufficient evidence and did not offer further explanation, federal investigators said.
Federal investigators wrote they had heard of several instances in which Missoula women were scared to report their rapes because they were so worried about being “re-victimized” by county officials handling their cases.
One clinical psychologist who treated many sexual assault survivors said that she was so put off by how local prosecutors treated her clients that when she herself was sexually assaulted, she was “reluctant” to go to the authorities.
The letter added that county attorneys would rarely update or consult with victims about their cases “in contravention of Montana law.” Sometimes cases weren’t pursued when prosecutors cited victims’ sexual histories, which are rarely admissible in Montana court, the letter said.
The attorney’s office would also rarely explain why it would choose not to pursue rape charges even when police investigators had found strong evidence that the suspect was guilty, the letter said.
In addressing the county attorney’s alleged bias against women, federal officials wrote, “This bias erodes public confidence in the criminal justice system, places women in Missoula at increased risk of harm, and reinforces ingrained stereotypes about women.”
Van Valkenburg told the Times that the Justice Department’s letter was “unethical, it’s unfair, it doesn’t in any way reflect how we run our office in Missoula, Mont.”
He added, “I think we are among the best in terms of how to handle sexual assault cases, and they are totally off base in terms of their claims that we are not treating women properly.”
Jennifer Clark, a chief deputy county attorney, told the Times that Van Valkenburg’s office was reviewing the specific allegations in the Justice Department’s letter.
“This is the first time that we’ve seen any of this,” she said, adding that, before releasing the letter, federal investigators refused to share what they were investigating. “I highly doubt any of it’s true, because I can’t imagine anyone in our office treating anyone that way.”
Photo: cliff1066 via Flickr