Open Letter to Attorney General Tim Fox. It’s Time to Get Involved in Missoula

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Mr. Fox:

When you were running for Attorney General in 2012 and 2008, you focused an enormous amount of attention on the issue of sex offenders in our communities. At the time, I thought your language and attacks on Steve Bullock smacked of demagoguery, but now you have the opportunity to follow through in a meaningful way. I trust that, given your public commitment to making our communities safer, you will act to protect the people of Missoula County and investigate a broken County Attorney’s office.

It’s time for your Department of Justice to investigate Missoula County’s handling of sexual assault cases. Past time, actually, but given the release of the federal Department of Justice report, there can be no other course than a state investigation. When the county attorney in Missoula is unwilling to do his job and unwilling to protect the women under his jurisdiction, it’s incumbent on the Attorney General’s office to act.

There is no other way to read the DoJ report on the treatment of sexual assault by the Missoula County Attorney’s office than to conclude that it has failed to protect victims of sexual assault in Missoula County.  Even worse, the Missoula County Attorney has revictimized women who have filed police reports and made victims even more reticent to pursue charges in the future.

The report from the Department of Justice reveals a series of harrowing anecdotes that reveal an office unable or unwilling to prosecute cases of sexual assault—including cases in which the offenders confessed their crimes to police. Women in Missoula County reporting sexual assault have been assaulted again—by a legal process that treats their claims as dishonest, disingenuous, and even immoral.

The report details an office locked in a 1970s mindset that holds victims of assault responsible for their attacks. An office that ignored sexual assaults on mentally ill victims, an office that asked victims why they didn’t fight back harder, and an office that excused the sexual assault of a child by arguing that “boys will be boys.”

The report shows that County Attorney officials:

  • were hostile to women filing claims.
  • often ignored the recommendations of the police to file charges against suspected rapists.
  • dismissed claims of sexual assault as attempts at “revenge” or as mistaken.
  • held the victims of sexual assault as responsible (or more) as their assailants.
  • didn’t communicate, as the law requires, with victims of sexual assault.
  • dismissed, discouraged, and debased those filing charges.
  • discriminated against the women of Missoula County, violating their equal rights under the law.

Since the announcement of the Justice investigation, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg has refused to cooperate at all, braying in the press about federal intrusion and even cajoling the Missoula County Commission to turn over $50,000 to fund a lawsuit against the DoJ. Presented with the findings of the Department of Justice investigation, which included interviews with over 30 victims, Van Valkenburg simply retrenched, arguing that the claims in the report were “lies.”

That response should make it abundantly clear that the Missoula County Attorney will not reform its practices nor take the DoJ findings seriously. It’s time for the Attorney General’s office to act, Mr. Fox. It’s time for you to act.

You have the legal—and moral—authority to begin an investigation of the practices of the Missoula County Attorney’s office, and if your commitment to protect victims is genuine, you should announce your intention to investigate on Tuesday when his staff returns to the office.

The Attorney General’s office has “supervisory authority over the state’s 56 county attorneys” and the Missoula County office is in dire need of supervision—and investigation. The MCA says that one of the responsibilities of the Attorney General is to “ensure that victims and witnesses of crime receive fair and proper treatment in the criminal justice system.” It’s beyond dispute that victims of crime in Missoula are receiving neither fair nor proper treatment today.

It’s long past the time for Mr. Van Valkenburg and his office to face investigation and accountability for their actions. The failure of the Missoula County Attorney’s office to treat victims of sexual assault as the victims of crime they are has badly damaged the reputation of Missoula and called into question the safety of the community. It has reaffirmed sexist notions about the nature of sexual assault, and most importantly, it has failed to offer comfort and legal redress for the victims of sexual assault.

Missoula County has failed, Mr. Fox. It’s time for you to act.

(Please also read jhwygirl’s take over at 4and20blackbirds.)

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

6 Comments

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  • Fox must investigate. Not only is the USDOJ report going to be all over the national media, he can’t have built his candidacy on being tough on sexual predators and let this pile of poo lie.

    If he does, I promise I will make sure that every voter in this state knows it whenever he runs for office – any office – again.

  • You forgot to include Steve Bullock in your letter Don.

    An open letter to Steve Bullock. It’s time to get involved in Montana.

    Dear Governor Bullock,

    Where the hell have you two been for the past three years? If people are going to criticize Fred VanValkenburg’s management of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office then you have to bear a lot of the criticism for being AWOL on this issue while you were Attorney General.

    As jhwyGirl said in 2012 in the middle of this DOJ issue when you were Attorney General:

    *************************
    “And again – Where in the world is Montana’s Attorney General Steve Bullock on this DOJ civil rights investigation? Doesn’t Montana have civil rights laws?
    I’ve also always been told that a county attorney is also a deputy of the state’s attorney general. If that is the case, what does Bullock have to say about Van Valkenburg’s lack of cooperation?
    Bueller? Bueller?!? “
    http://4and20blackbirds.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/is-missoula-county-attorney-fred-van-valkenburg-strategizing-with-arizonas-maricopa-county-sheriff-arpaio/
    *************************
    I know you were busy during that time helping the feds coordinate the statewide marijuana investigations and raids throughout Montana while telling MM grow operators they didn’t have anything to worry about. And I know you were busy running for Governor and doing the best you could to hide from the DOJ rape allegations or as VanValkenburg said, “when Gov. Steve Bullock was attorney general, he was not willing to get involved with the DOJ because of “election year politics.”

    In spite of your busy political schedule and your artful dodging of the media, you managed to quietly reassure VanValkenburg that you stood firmly behind him and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office in the midst of the DOJ investigation. VanValkenburg repeatedly pointed out that you backed him all the way and your Attorney General’s office proudly proclaimed it’s cooperation with VanValkenburg’s office:
    “Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Judy Beck added that “we’ve always had a cooperative relationship with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office. We don’t expect that to change.”

    http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/missoula-county-s-cheeky-refusal-to-cooperate-with-probe-could/article_de2a55f6-19fd-5628-b008-61bf56d64045.html#ixzz2teJpZeZH

    I also realize you were busy with ethics problems of your own when you picked John Walsh as your Lt Governor running mate after he told you the Army called his leadership abilities into question and issued him a letter of reprimand for bullying his junior officers and using Army resources so he could get a juicy appointment as an officer in a private organization. You even appointed Walsh to the US Senate after discovering the US Army rejected his promotion to General because his poor leadership and ethical lapses. Apparently, if Walsh’s ethical issues didn’t bother you then why would rapes and ethics charges against the Missoula County Attorney’s office cause you to take action?

    You had the legal—and moral—authority to begin an investigation of the practices of the Missoula County Attorney’s office when you were Attorney General, and if your commitment to protect victims was genuine, you should have investigated that office when these charges came to light.

    The Attorney General’s office has “supervisory authority over the state’s 56 county attorneys” and the Missoula County office was in dire need of supervision—and investigation. The MCA says that one of the responsibilities of the Attorney General is to “ensure that victims and witnesses of crime receive fair and proper treatment in the criminal justice system.” It’s beyond dispute that victims of crime in Missoula were receiving neither fair nor proper treatment while you were Attorney General.

    In closing Governor Bullock, you refused to investigate Missoula County’s handling of sexual assault cases when you were Attorney General. You openly gave support to the Missoula County Attorney’s Office actions while you were Attorney General. You failed to protect victims of sexual assault in Missoula County while you were in charge of Montana’s Department of Justice. Since the announcement of the Justice investigations you have continued to give little more than lip service to defending Montana’s rape victims and have failed to demand a thorough investigation of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and of your own lack of action while Attorney General when these charges first came to light.

    It’s long past the time for Mr. Van Valkenburg and his office to face investigation and accountability for their actions because of your lack of action Mr. Bullock. It’s time for you to act now, Mr. Bullock. So I ask you again, where the hell have your been for the past three years and what are you going to publicly do about this?

    • Boy, that’s a tongue-lashing!

      So what is going on with this? We had a big story again in the Missoula Independent today and yet there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot happening in Helena.

      And when are these legal proceedings ever going to go forward? Can anyone put a timeline up? A great post might just be a detailed timeline of these sexual assault incidents going back to 2012 or even earlier.

      Mainly I’m just wondering how long this is going to drag on, how long people are going to have to keep reading about it.

      Even if Van Valkenburg resigns, do we think all this media attention is going to go away? I mean, we just had another young UM student charged with rape this week.

      I guess I’m wondering, will this issue drag into another election cycle?

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