Montana Prosecutor Blasts Sex Assault Investigation

PHOTO: Fred Van Valkenburg
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A Montana official whose office is under investigation for its handling of sexual assault crimes at the University of Montana strong feelings for the Department of Justice: butt out.

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenberg is blasting the federal investigation launched Tuesday that alleges the Missoula police department and the University of Montana failed to investigate and prosecute sexual assault and harrasment cases in a way that discriminated against women.

The Justice Department will look into 80 reports of rape that have occurred in the city of Missoula over the past three years.

"We adamantly deny that we have (done) any such thing, and we are deeply disturbed by any suggestion that we have done so," Van Valkenburg said referring to the federal allegation of possible discrimination against women.

Thomas E. Perez, an assistant attorney general who announced the investigation in Missoula on Tuesday, said that the purpose fob the inquiry was to examine the systems in place to deal with sexual assault reports. The investigation is civil, not criminal, he noted.

Representatives from the Missoula police department, the University of Montana, and the city of Missoula all voiced their support for the investigation Tuesday, according to the report.

"We have pledged to cooperate with the Department of Justice and look forward to the investigation and anticipate a positive outcome of investigation," university Vice President Jim Foley told ABC News.

Van Valkenberg, however, is critical of the investigation.

"We handle sexual assaults the same way that we've handled them forever, and the same way that prosecutors handle them across the country," Van Valkenberg told ABC News. "You review everything you've got and decide whether there's probable cause to charge a crime, and is there a reasonable likelihood you can obtain a guilty verdict."

In his statement, Van Valkenberg speculates that Department of Justice is investigating why certain sexual assault cases were not prosecuted by his office.

"A prosecutor's job is not to obtain convictions, but to insure that justice is done," he writes. "While we have no choice, given the heavy hand of the federal government, but to cooperate with this investigation, we find it extremely ironic that the United States Department of Justice refuses to tell us what we have supposedly done wrong."

The federal inquiry comes on the heels of the university's own internal investigation into how it handles reports of sexual assault. The school hired a former state Supreme Court justice, Diane Barz, to investigate nine sexual assaults that were alleged to have happened at the school, including an alleged gang rape and at least one sexual assault that involved a university football player, according to the university.

As a result, five students no longer attend the university, and the school has amended its Student-Athlete Code of Conduct. Barz's reports were issues in December 2011 and January 2012. In March, the university's president fired the football coach and athletic director without explanation.

Since the investigation, three more alleged sexual assaults have been made public, including one in which a complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education against the football program, football coach, athletic director, and university administrators, according to the Missoulian.

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