Fred Van Valkenburg is back from vacation today, and I do not envy him his voice mailbox. Probably he checked it while he was away. We know he read the paper, because he sent attorney Jim Ghidella an angry email after Ghidella wrote a letter to the editor critical of Van Valkenburg’s fight against the US Department of Justice. For those of you who have not followed this story: in 2012, the DOJ announced that it was investigating the University of Montana, Missoula police, and the county attorney’s office for improper handling of sexual assault cases. The police and UM cooperated, and their investigations are now over. Van Valkenburg, on the other hand, has insisted all along that Justice has no jurisdiction over his office, and recently got $50,000 from the county commission to pursue a declaratory judgment against them. That lawsuit was filed earlier this week—just in time for us to learn about the agreement that Montana’s state attorney general made with the DOJ in 2012 to cooperate with investigators.
It’s kind of a problematic revelation. The state attorney general has jurisdiction of county attorneys’ offices, and the DOJ has jurisdiction over state AGs, so it appears, at least, that the agreement makes Van Valkenburg’s lawsuit against the feds utterly frivolous. It certainly gives him a poorer chance of winning, and it calls into question what winning might even mean. Best-case scenario, Steve Bullock—attorney general when he made the deal with Justice, governor now—will have to go back on an agreement he made with the federal government.
Worst-case, Van Valkenburg took Missoula county commissioners for a ride. It seems inconceivable that he did not know about the Bullock deal when he asked the commission for $50,000 to pursue his jurisdiction lawsuit against the DOJ. The man has been a prosecutor for 30 years. While it’s possible that Bullock would make a deal pursuant to an investigation of Van Valkenburg’s office and not tell him about it, the possibility seems remote.
The more likely explanation is that our county attorney withheld relevant information from our county commission when he was selling them on his plan to sue the federal government. That’s a gutsy move—almost as gutsy as refusing to cooperate with the DOJ in the first place. Back in January, Van Valkenburg said that refusal was a matter of principle, as well as a cost-saving expedient and a declaration of innocence. I quote:
To me, it’s a significant responsibility to resolve it not only for Missoula’s benefit but for every prosecutor in America, so that they know where they stand in terms of being taken to task by the civil rights people in the U.S. Department of Justice.
That righteous declaration reads differently if you think Van Valkenburg knew about the deal between Bullock and DOJ that gave “the civil rights people” jurisdiction over his office. Suddenly, his whole argument seems not just tenuous but incredibly cynical.
As we said, the investigations of the university and the police department are over now. Everyone, even the mayor, seems to think they were a good thing. At least that’s what they’re saying publicly, for the understandable reason that they do not want Missoula to be the town that doesn’t care about rape. Van Valkenburg could be with them at podiums and on the editorial pages of the Missoulian, talking about how much more effective his department is today, but instead his is sinking deeper into a quagmire of his own making.
He’s going to retire soon. No matter what happens, Van Valkenburg is done at the end of this year, a fact of which I keep reminding myself as this story progresses. Whatever they find out about his office—however much county money he spends resisting it, and however many emails he fires off—he’s out after Christmas. So why is he behaving this way?
Perhaps he doesn’t want his three-decade career as a prosecutor to end with an investigation. But that investigation is happening. The damage is done, or rather it would be done if Van Valkenburg had submitted to the DOJ and admitted he made some mistakes. Instead, he has turned his refusal into the biggest mistake of all.
It looks as if this boondoggle is going to be the Van Valkenburg legacy. It’s ironic, since we all would have forgotten about the investigation by now if he had just let it happen. Instead he has stood on principle, even as he appears to have bent principle in his dealings with the county commission. With ten months to go, our county attorney is looking less credible by the day.