The family of embattled Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell said his conduct with a 17-year-old girl is the result of serious emotional problems following his shooting a year ago.
But the girl's parents blast Scannell as predatory and a hypocrite, and call for him to step down. They recently won a restraining order barring Scannell from contact with the girl, and a criminal investigation is pending.
As the investigation develops, questions unfold about how effective Scannell can be once he returns from a medical leave.
In a letter sent by Scannell's wife to friends and published today in the Cook County News-Herald, she writes that her husband "has been suffering from terrible PTSD, depression, and anxiety since he was shot and nearly killed last December." She goes on to say "He did not exercise good judgment in relying on and becoming too close to [the girl involved]," and said it is "not something he would ever have engaged in before the shooting."
Scannell rose to prominence a year ago when he was shot in the Cook County courthouse by a defendant he had just successfully prosecuted for criminal sexual conduct with a 15-year-old girl.
The letter from Scannell's wife said he just completed a five-week intensive inpatient program to deal with the trauma, and emphasizes his relationship with the girl was not criminal or sexual, nor, she said, did he harass the family.
But in a separate statement also published today in the Cook County News-Herald, the parents of the teen girl offer a different viewpoint. They write Scannell's "predatory behavior" "likely began years ago." They said it is "inconceivable" Scannell "could continue to serve this county in any capacity." They call him a "hypocrite," and said they hope he "sees the wisdom in resigning from his job" and leaving the community.
Others in Grand Marais are also calling for Scannell's ouster. On Tuesday county resident Jason Zimmer went to a Cook County Board meeting to ask the commissioners to remove Scannell.
"Given that he did have a trial less than a year ago that has now got him into the same situation," Zimmer said.
Cook County district 5 commissioner Bruce Martinson told Zimmer, "A lot of us have the same concerns that you do."
Chair Jan Hall then said the board is deeply concerned for all parties, but has little authority over the situation.
Reached by phone later, Zimmer, 38, said the community has lost trust in Scannell.
"I don't see how a person can do their job, especially him, both mentally and physically right now," Zimmer said. "I don't see how anybody could get a fair trial anymore with him as the county attorney. And I don't feel he can earn that trust back for the community."
Zimmer started a Facebook page titled "Let's get Tim Scannell out of office," but he said the page was taken down Wednesday, he assumes, by Facebook. He said several residents had objected to the tone of the discussion on the page.
Now Zimmer is readying a petition drive to remove Scannell from office. The petition must allege facts of malfeasance or nonfeasance of official duties, and must be signed by a minimum of about 600 registered Cook County voters. The removal process is lengthy, involves a trial-like hearing and can wind up on appeal before the state Supreme Court.
"I feel that if me going forward with this petition doesn't work, I feel the voters of Cook County will come through in the next election," Zimmer said. The sorry thing is it's two years from now."
Scannell did not respond to requests for comment. An automated email response indicates he is "on medical leave indefinitely due to health issues."
But in two written statements, Scannell has vowed to stay on. Scannell's attorney asserts he has not committed a crime or any act of harassment, nor did any sexual conduct occur. Scannell said he will fulfill his duties as best he can under the circumstances.
"That's the question that each of us would have to answer for ourselves. Is, 'can I do a good job for Cook County?'" said John Sonsteng, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law, and a former Dakota County Attorney.
"Are the police going to trust me when I make judgments. When I go in front of the jury and they know I have a reputation, and I'm prosecuting somebody for whatever it is? What kind of integrity does that bring to the office?" Sonsteng said. "And I don't have the answer, I think it's something that's extremely serious for him to think about, whether justice can be done for the people of the county."
If the public's faith in any prosecutor has been diminished, Sonsteng said, "then I'm not sure you can carry out the responsibility of the office fairly."
Scannell has about a month to request a hearing in response to the restraining order. Otherwise it will remain in place until 2014, when his second term as Cook County Attorney expires.
Letter from Tim Scannell's wife, published in Friday's edition of the Cook County News-Herald:
I thought I should send a brief message to you, our friends, regarding the situation that is being overdramatized currently by the media. I am furious and hurt by how they have portrayed this but have sympathy for everyone involved in this situation.
As you probably know, Tim has been suffering from terrible PTSD, depression, and anxiety since he was shot and nearly killed last December. He did not exercise good judgment in relying on and becoming too close to [the girl involved]. All of this conduct is an unfortunate result of those emotional issues.
Obviously, this behavior is not something he would ever have engaged in before the shooting. That isn't an excuse for the bad judgment, but it does put the lack of foresight in context.
All of this has obviously been very hurtful to our family and the [other family] and all of you. We have been trying to work through the situation as best we can. Tim just completed a 5-week intensive inpatient program to help address and deal with his physical and emotional trauma. His relationship with her was not sexual or criminal, and he never harassed any members of the family in question in any way. He is trying to work through this horrible situation in a way that is fair to everyone involved. It's unfortunate for everyone that this has become a media issue simply because Tim is a public official and was shot and nearly died last fall. He and I want to assure you all that he will not contact the affected family at any time going forward.
Statement from the parents of the teenage girl involved, published in Friday's edition of the Cook County News-Herald:
As we have already sacrificed our family's privacy by providing many details in our request for a restraining order, we hesitate to comment on this situation other than to state the obvious: on so many levels, this is devastating for our 17-year-old daughter to endure. We will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect our daughter and her future.
We trusted Tim for many years; in fact, we were at his bedside within days of the shooting incident last December. Although we may never know exactly when his predatory behavior began, in hindsight we are saddened to think that it likely began years ago and manifested itself right under the umbrella of our friendship. Had we known in June, as other members of Tim's family did, we could have begun the difficult process of healing several months ago.
We are grateful for the outpouring of support, and we trust that our community will not tolerate this kind of behavior from an elected public official -- or anyone else, for that matter. It is inconceivable to us that Tim could continue to serve this county in any capacity, whether coaching and volunteering with kids, or "protecting and providing for the public safety" as he asserts in the mission statement on his web page. How could his constituents trust such a hypocrite to "employ the highest ethical standards?"
In closing, we hope that Tim sees the wisdom in resigning from his job, leaving our community, and sparing our daughter further anguish.
— Follow Dan Kraker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dankraker