Cook County Attorney charged with criminal sexual assault
Cook County’s top prosecutor is potentially facing jail time after being charged with two felonies Thursday.
GRAND MARAIS — Cook County’s top prosecutor is potentially facing jail time after being charged with two felonies Thursday.
County Attorney Tim Scannell, 47, was charged with two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct over an alleged inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old girl.
While the victim in the case was older than 16 — the age of consent in Minnesota — Scannell was more than four years older than her and in a position of authority, which makes the incident a criminal offense, special prosecutor Thomas Heffelfinger said. A grand jury convened Oct. 21 to review the case and returned the indictment the next day.
“This is a very difficult case for this community. This is a small, tight-knit community,” said Heffelfinger, a private attorney in Minneapolis who was appointed in March to review the case. “It’s a very difficult case for the victim and her family, and it’s a very difficult case for Mr. Scannell.”
The indictment states that Scannell “intentionally engaged in sexual contact” with the girl twice during August 2012, when she was still 17. Because the charges were brought by a grand jury, the charging document does not reveal details of the allegations. The charges each carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
The findings are the result of a nearly seven-month investigation conducted by Heffelfinger, the former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota.
Scannell made his first appearance Thursday in State District Court in Cook County and is next scheduled to appear on Nov. 12. He was released on his own recognizance and ordered not to have any conduct with the victim.
During the hearing, Scannell and his attorney made two motions, asking that the indictment be dismissed and that all judges in the 6th Judicial District recuse themselves because they have worked with him. Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Shaun Floerke, who presided over the hearing, took both motions under advisement.
“Been better,” Scannell said when reached by the News Tribune after the court appearance, declining to comment further. Grand Marais attorney Richard Swanson, who represented Scannell at the hearing, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Scannell has been on medical leave for about three weeks, with the county’s two assistant attorneys taking on his caseload. He remains employed by the county.
Heffelfinger said it is the first time he has brought charges against a fellow prosecutor.
“It certainly offered unique circumstances to the grand jury,” he said.
Cook County Commissioner Gary Gamble, who attended Thursday’s news conference, said a special board meeting would be held today to discuss additional compensation for the assistant attorneys. He said he doesn’t think the board could seek to remove Scannell from office.
“There’s little we can do pending the outcome of the case,” he said. “We’re just hoping for a healthy resolution for the victim and her family.”
Also gathered at the news conference were several dozen community members, including protesters who have met on the courthouse steps every Friday for 10 months to call for Scannell’s resignation.
One, Gary Nesgoda of Grand Marais, said the protests probably will stop while Scannell is away from the office. He said he wants Scannell to get the help he needs, and that requires him stepping down. Still, Nesgoda said he’s not counting on a resignation.
“I was trying not to dance,” Nesgoda said of his reaction to the charges. “We’ve put away the signs away for now, but we’re not throwing them away.”
Fellow protester Tamarie Oberg of Grand Portage said it’s a good time to look to the future.
“Now the community can start to heal,” she said.
Scannell is an elected official, and his term is set to expire next year. More than enough signatures are lined up to petition for request his removal from office. More than enough signatures are lined up for a petition to remove him from office, Grand Marais resident Jason Zimmer told the News Tribune.
The alleged relationship with the girl came to light when the girl’s family filed a restraining order against Scannell in December. The order, authorized by Floerke, remains in effect until Dec. 4, 2014.
According to the petition that sought the restraining order, signed by the girl’s parents, Scannell is known to the victim and her family as a friend, coach, mentor and volunteer. He gave the girl guitar lessons and coached her in a summer tennis program.
To avoid any conflict of interest with the attorney’s office, Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk asked the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to investigate Scannell in December.
After a BCA investigation, Heffelfinger was appointed as a special prosecutor to review the case for possible criminal charges March 25.
Scannell was shot and seriously wounded in December 2011 by a convicted sex offender he had just prosecuted. On Dec. 15, 2011, Daniel Schlienz went to Scannell’s office in the Cook County Courthouse with a loaded handgun, minutes after he was convicted of criminal sexual conduct with a teenage girl. The county attorney was shot once in the chest below his heart and twice in the right thigh.