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U.S. Probing Sex Assault Claims at University of Montana

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder
Eric Holder, U.S. attorney general. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

May 2 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. is seeking to determine whether the University of Montana in Missoula and local law enforcement failed to investigate and prosecute cases of alleged sexual assault against women, the Justice Department said.

The department is looking into rape accusations made by women on and off campus in Missoula, including those unconnected to the university. The Justice Department said it hasn’t determined how many of the 80 rapes reported in Missoula during the past three years weren’t properly investigated. There were 11 assaults reported on the campus over 18 months, according to the department.

“The allegations that the University of Montana, the local police department and the county attorney’s office failed to adequately address sexual assaults are very disturbing,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement yesterday.

The Justice Department is examining whether gender discrimination played a role in a failure to investigate, according to the statement.

Justice Department letters to the university and local officials describing the investigation didn’t mention sexual assault allegations women made against two members of the Division I football team at the state’s oldest college, which has nearly 16,000 students. One player has been charged.

Police, County Attorney

The department will investigate whether the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office “failed to investigate or prosecute sexual assaults,” according to the Justice Department’s letters to local officials.

The purpose is to examine whether the university and local law enforcement “acted promptly, fairly and adequately to protect the interests of women,” Thomas Perez, who leads the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in a conference call with reporters.

At least five of the accused students have left the university, said its president, Royce Engstrom, in a March 22 statement.

The university will “cooperate fully and do whatever we can to be helpful in the investigation,” said James Foley, a spokesman.

Local prosecutors “adamantly deny” engaging in gender discrimination, said Fred Van Valkenburg, the Missoula county attorney, in a statement.

“I would be shocked to learn of discriminatory patterns or practices by our department,” Mark Muir, the chief of the Missoula Police Department, said in a statement.

Running Back

The football player charged is running back Beau Donaldson. He was arrested in January on charges that he assaulted a woman sleeping in his house in September 2010, according to the Missoulian newspaper.

Donaldson, who pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial in September, talked about the attack in a December 2011 telephone call monitored by police, the Missoulian said. His attorney, Milton Datsopoulos of Missoula, didn’t respond to a phone message seeking comment.

In March, a female student obtained a protection order against quarterback Jordan Johnson after accusing him of sexually assaulting her, according to Josh Van de Wetering, a Missoula attorney representing the victim, whose name hasn’t been made public.

Contracts Not Renewed

Johnson’s attorney, David Paoli of Missoula, didn’t respond to a phone message seeking comment.

In March, the university announced it wouldn’t renew the contracts of Athletic Director Jim O’Day and head football coach Robin Pflugrad, who led the team to an 11-3 record last season. Foley said he couldn’t comment on a “personnel matter.”

The University of Montana “has a problem of sexual assault on and off campus,” Diane Barz, a retired Montana Supreme Court justice retained by the university to conduct an independent investigation, said in a Jan. 31 letter summarizing her findings.

Some students questioned about the allegations “have not been truthful,” Barz said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Seth Stern in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at

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