02/19/2014 07:37 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Montana Prosecutor Says Feds Trying To 'Bully' Him Into Sexual Assault Reforms

WASHINGTON -- A Montana prosecutor whose office has been accused by the Justice Department of bias against female sexual assault victims and of mishandling rape cases said Tuesday that federal officials are running a smear campaign against him.

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg defended his office in an interview with The Huffington Post, saying his prosecutors filed charges in only about 17 percent of the sexual assault cases referred to them during a 4 1/2-year period in part because victims were too embarrassed to air their sexual histories.

"It's very disturbing to see the Department of Justice is willing to engage in this kind of negative campaign-style type thing," Van Valkenburg said. "This is like Willie Horton in the legal system, or something like that, where they just attack people and they don't really care whether they're being truthful or not. Our prosecution numbers are as good or better than virtually any prosecution numbers in the country."

Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general in DOJ's Civil Rights Division, told Van Valkenburg in a letter on Friday that his office was ill-prepared to prosecute sexual assault cases, treated victims with disrespect and "apparently leaves sexual assault and rape laws largely unenforced."

The letter said one woman described dealing with prosecutors as "traumatic." Others said they were treated with "no compassion." Some said they felt "judged." A detective told a woman that because "there was no video of the incident," prosecutors "wouldn't see this as anything more than a girl getting drunk at a party," the letter said.

A clinical psychologist who counseled sexual assault victims said she had heard so many horror stories about the County Attorney's Office that she was reluctant to press charges with the office when she was sexually assaulted.

But Van Valkenburg argued that victims were reluctant to help prosecute cases -- and not because his prosecutors discouraged them.

"A lot of these cases people do not want to have the case prosecuted, they do not want to have the case brought because they do not want to be subjected to cross-examination by defense attorneys, to public humiliation or whatever because they made some mistake in their life about who they went out with, and who they had sex with and stuff like that," Van Valkenburg said. "It's just really a serious issue that makes it very difficult to prosecute these kinds of cases."

Van Valkenburg said 11 of his 17 deputy prosecutors are women who are "very much advocacy, advocates, of feminism" and protecting women. "If we were doing the kind of things that the DOJ suggests we are doing, we wouldn't be able to even survive in our own office because people would be so upset about it," he said.

In one case, a woman whose 5-year-old daughter was assaulted by an adolescent boy asked why the boy's punishment was two years of community service. A prosecutor told her "boys will be boys," according to the DOJ letter.

Van Valkenburg said no one in his office ever said that to the girl's mother.

"I think that the perpetrator in the thing was 9 or 10 years old, so it wasn't some adult preying on a 5-year-old," Van Valkenburg said. "But there was never any statement made about 'boys will be boys.' I mean that's just fantasy either on the part of DOJ or on the part of the mother of the victim in the case, because that's just not how we handle these types of cases."

Van Valkenburg acknowledged he hadn't spoken to the prosecutor who handled that case, who he said has since left his office for another job. He also said he's not certain whether the 5-year-old victim is the one he was thinking of, since DOJ won't give him the name of the victim.

It's unusual and may be unprecedented for DOJ to accuse a prosecutor's office of violating the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law and the Safe Streets Act's prohibition against discriminating against female sexual assault victims. DOJ has issued findings involving sexual assault cases against three police departments, a sheriff's office and a campus police agency -- but not a prosecutor's office.

Van Valkenburg, who filed a federal lawsuit against the Justice Department this month alleging it has no right to investigate his office, said Justice Department prosecutors have gone over the line. He has filed a motion for declaratory judgement, arguing that the Justice Department has no jurisdiction over the affairs of his office.

Natasha Prinzing Jones, a lawyer representing the Missoula County Attorney's Office, said DOJ is using the media to try to pressure the prosecutor's office.

"The DOJ readily admits that they've never used that statute to try to hold any authority over a local prosecutor's office," Jones said. "This is the first time they've tried to expand the authority of the DOJ in that matter. The DOJ needs to respond in court, and what this letter is is a way to sway the media and use politics to make this lawsuit go away."

A DOJ spokeswoman said, "The department is prepared to defend its jurisdiction in court. And we are confident we will prevail."

Van Valkenburg said he won't let DOJ "bully" his office into changes.

"Doing what they want is not the right thing, and some people just have to stand up to bullies and tell they that they're not going to get away with their tactics," Van Valkenburg said. "They can't run every prosecutor's office out of Washington, D.C. That's crazy."