By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A suspended University of Montana quarterback pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to a charge of rape stemming from accusations by an acquaintance that he sexually assaulted her in February, court officials said.
Jordan Johnson, the school's former football team captain, is the second member of his squad facing rape charges amid federal investigations into the handling of sexual assault reports by university and local authorities.
Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg on July 31 charged Johnson, 20, with a felony count of sexual intercourse without consent based on claims by a fellow student that Johnson raped her while they were watching a movie in her bedroom on February 4.
Johnson entered his not guilty plea to the charge on Tuesday in a state court in Missoula.
"Jordan strongly maintains his innocence and looks forward to the opportunity to prove his innocence at trial, clear his name and return to pursuing his education," Johnson's attorney, David Paoli, said last week in a statement.
In January, running back Beau Donaldson was charged with raping a woman at his residence while she slept. He, too, has pleaded not guilty.
Both players have been suspended from the team and are prohibited from engaging in team activities pending the outcome of criminal proceedings.
In May, the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into the handling of more than 80 reported rapes in Missoula, many of them not related to the campus, during the past three years. The investigation is tied to complaints by unnamed sources that authorities were failing to aggressively investigate sexual assault claims.
That probe and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education is set to examine how officials at the 15,600-student campus in western Montana responded to at least 11 student-related sexual assaults reported there since 2010.
At least three of those involved rape accusations against University of Montana Grizzly players, including an alleged gang rape that did not result in charges being filed.
The spate of alleged rapes, the implication of student athletes in some of them, and the abrupt dismissal in March of the football coach and athletic director has shaken the campus and battered the image of a school celebrated for its Big Sky Conference championship football team, the Montana Grizzlies.
Federal authorities have said they are seeking to determine if gender discrimination was at issue in the handling of sexual assault reports by the university and in Missoula as a whole.
In January, the governing body of U.S. college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, notified the university it was conducting an investigation of the football program.
Kevin McRae, Montana's associate commissioner of higher education, said the NCAA has interviewed university personnel but said the school could not speak to the substance of those interviews.
The NCAA last month slapped tough sanctions against Penn State University over the sexual abuse of children by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted of molesting 10 boys over a 15-year period and now awaits sentencing.
The unprecedented NCAA rebuke of Penn State included a $60 million fine, forfeiture of the school's football victories for the past 14 seasons, a ban of the university's team from lucrative post-season play for four years and a reduction in its football scholarships.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman)