MISSOULA, Mont. -- The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into the way Missoula police, prosecutors and the University of Montana have responded to reports of sexual assault and harassment after the agency learned of complaints that cases were not being properly handled.
The investigation was disclosed Tuesday after a preliminary examination conducted earlier this year concluded there was enough evidence to move ahead with a full probe, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said.
Lawyers from the Justice Department's civil rights division will look at all 80 sexual assaults reported by women in Missoula over the past three years. Eleven sexual assaults involving university students have been reported in the past 18 months. Prosecutors were trying to figure out whether those university complaints were included in the total number of citywide assaults reported.
Investigators will examine whether gender discrimination hurt the prompt and adequate response by the university and law enforcement to protect women's safety, Perez said.
It won't be a criminal investigation into rape allegations but will examine whether the Montana agencies have the systems in place to effectively respond to those allegations, he said.
Perez spoke at a news conference at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Missoula flanked by the subjects of his investigation – university president Royce Engstrom, Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir, Missoula Mayor John Engen and Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg.
The group met earlier Tuesday in private to discuss the investigation for the first time.
"We all believe that this is not a pleasant experience but it's a necessary experience," Perez said.
Engen, Muir and Engstrom all pledged their full cooperation and defended their employees, saying they do everything they can to protect victims of sexual assault. They also said changes already have been made and they hope the investigation would allow them to better serve the community.
Van Valkenburg was the only one to add discord to that message of cooperation. He blasted the Justice Department's probe as an "overreach of the federal government" and said prosecutors refused to tell him what his office is accused of doing wrong.
The implication that Missoula authorities have engaged in a practice of gender discrimination is false, he said.
"We adamantly deny that we have (done) any such thing, and are we are deeply disturbed by any suggestion that we have done so," Van Valkenburg said.
Van Valkenburg said his office prosecutes sexual assault allegations when there is enough evidence to do so, but when there isn't, it doesn't. Nobody's rights have been violated, and the federal investigation could set a dangerous precedent of federal prosecutors second-guessing local prosecutors' work, he said.
Perez responded by saying the protection of women is not an overreach of government. The investigation has only begun and there has been no predetermination of any wrongdoing, he said.
"'What did we do wrong?' Possibly nothing. We don't know," Perez said.
The Justice Department has previously investigated allegations of gender discrimination within the New Orleans Police Department. In that case, investigators found that sexual assault reports were being categorized as a miscellaneous crime, resulting in the underreporting of the more serious offense, Perez said.
He said investigators will be looking at how Missoula authorities categorize sexual assault reports, but it was too early to know whether there are any parallels in the cases.
The Montana investigation comes months after the university hired retired state Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz to look into reports of sexual assaults involving students, including alleged gang rapes in December 2010 and December 2011. Her investigation uncovered nine alleged sexual assaults, with at least one of them involving a Montana football player.
She also found evidence of sexual assault that had not been appropriately reported and investigated.
Since the Barz report, at least three more alleged assaults at the university have been made public, including two by a Saudi Arabian exchange student who left the country when school officials notified him he was the subject of a rape investigation before a police report had been filed.
The other was a complaint filed by a student against a football player who was suspended from spring drills after a woman sought a restraining order alleging rape. He was later allowed to practice after the restraining order was replaced with a civil "no-contact" order. No charges have been filed.
In another case, suspended running back Beau Donaldson was charged with sexual intercourse without consent. Court records say he acknowledged during a monitored telephone conversation in December that he assaulted a woman who was sleeping at his house in September 2010. He has pleaded not guilty and a trial is set for Sept. 26.
A person whose name was withheld from documents filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in January against the football program, Engstrom, former president George Dennison and an athletic director and football coach whose names were also redacted.
Engstrom fired head football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O'Day in March. The sexual assault allegations were not listed as a reason for their dismissal, but Engstrom told the men that a change in leadership was needed.The school that month also announced policy changes that expand the student conduct code off campus, requires most university employees to report assaults they learn about and creates new panels to review alleged conduct violations.