And like that, the Gordian Knot is untangled: Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg has announced a tripartite agreement with the Department of Justice and State Attorney General Tim Fox to improve the way his office prosecutes sexual assaults. Van Valkenburg will drop his lawsuit, and the DOJ will stop investigating him and releasing statements about it while he is on vacation. Now we just shake hands, smile for the cameras and put this unpleasantness behind us. Quote:
“(The USDOJ) never once reached out—never once in two years—reached out to work cooperatively with me in this matter,” Van Valkenburg said. “The letter that (Acting U.S. Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels) issued on Feb. 14 was the single most unprofessional thing I have seen in my practice of law in 41 years…Why did the United States Department of Justice do what they did here?…People working for the United States government think there is no price to things.”
L’chaim, everybody! Samuels succeeded Van Valkenburg at the podium and remarked, on behalf of said government, that “had we had to litigate this, I am confident that we would have prevailed.”
It was the kind of agreement where nobody agrees, but at least it was also the kind that concludes a long investigation. And what did the victims of unprosecuted sex crimes get to assure them that, next time, the county attorney will have their backs? The office will spend $210,000 on two new staff lines, including a technical adviser overseeing prosecutions, and submit its uncharged sexual assault cases to Fox for one year.
That’s it. The county will have the opportunity to renew the staff lines after one year, but it will also have the opportunity to fill Missoula’s potholes with nuts and fudge. Probably, nothing permanent will change about the county attorney’s office as a result of this agreement. Hopefully, it will get better at prosecuting sexual assaults, but in the end it won’t spend more money or employ different people. If Van Valkenburg had agreed to these terms when the investigation was announced—back when UM and the Missoula Police Department cooperated—the whole thing would be over by now.
So: if these terms are amenable to him, and they were close to what the DOJ wanted in the first place, why did Van Valkenburg fight for so long? Followup question: what changed? It looks as if the new element in the equation is Montana AG Fox, which suggests—almost impossibly—that the jurisdictional issue is what mattered to Van Valkenburg all along.
Even at yesterday’s press conference, he reiterated that the DOJ had no authority over his office. This was at an event whose ostensible message was “moving forward together.” Making few concessions to subtlety, Van Valkenburg indicated that although he settled it, the DOJ had no right to demand anything from him. It was the note he sounded at all points during the investigation, except the beginning.
When Van Valkenburg first refused to cooperate with the DOJ, he said that the investigation was a ploy by the Obama administration to look good on women’s issues. It was a surprising claim from a man who campaigned actively for Obama in 2008, but Van Valkenburg insisted it was all political, and his office was doing a great job with sexual assaults anyway, and fixing it would cost too much money, and Justice had no jurisdiction. Only gradually did his objections converge on that last issue—the one that turns on a legal technicality, the one that allows him to say nothing about how he has prosecuted sexual assaults.
Maybe his office did a great job, as he says. If it has been less than perfect, though, Van Valkenburg’s course through this sea of contradictions has steered away from acknowledging that. Even at the press conference, he denied everything. Now he can retire without saying much either way on the issue that threatened to define his career.
He went out with his boots on, and he kicked hell out of everybody’s shins on the way. And he never said anything, really, about how Missoula County prosecutes sexual assaults. Nobody could make him. He didn’t have to.