Cook County attorney charged with criminal sexual conduct

Cook County attorney Tim Scannell
Cook County attorney Tim Scannell in a 2012 file photo.
Special to MPR News by Derek Montgomery

Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell has been indicted on two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct tied to an alleged inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old girl.

Special prosecutor Tom Heffelfinger announced the grand jury indictment Thursday on the steps of the Cook County Courthouse. He would not comment on the nature of the evidence that led to the indictment, which alleges the criminal conduct took place during two days in August 2012.

Scannell, 47, made his first court appearance Thursday. He was released without bail until the next hearing, scheduled for Nov. 12. His attorney moved to have the indictment dismissed and asked to have all 6th District judges removed from consideration to hear the case.

Heffelfinger, a former U.S. Attorney, was appointed to the case in March after an investigation by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. That investigation came after the girl's family petitioned for a restraining order last December, alleging that Scannell confessed to a romantic relationship with their daughter.

Tom Heffelfinger
Special Prosecutor Tom Heffelfinger announced two felony charges of criminal sexual conduct against Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell on Oct. 31, 2013 on the steps of the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais. The grand jury indictment alleges two separate instances of criminal sexual conduct with a 17 year old girl in August, 2012.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

At that time, Scannell apologized to Cook County residents for what he called a "breach of trust." But he insisted he hadn't committed a crime, and vowed to stay in office.

The alleged victim was older than 16, the general age of consent in Minnesota. But Heffelfinger said the fourth-degree charges arose because Scannell was in a position of authority, and was more than four years older than the girl. Scannell was 46 at the time. In the restraining order petition, the girl's parents describe Scannell as a family friend, coach and mentor.

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Scannell rose to statewide prominence in December 2011 when he was shot in the county courthouse after prosecuting a 42-year-old Grand Marais man on criminal sexual conduct with a 15-year-old girl. The man who allegedly shot Scannell, 42-year-old Daniel Schlienz, later died in jail.

In December, Scannell's family said his conduct with the 17-year-old was rooted in his serious emotional problems following the shooting and emphasized that the relationship with the girl was not criminal or sexual.

The girl's family, however, called Scannell's behavior "predatory" and pressed for Scannell's removal as county attorney.

Scannell's attorney on Thursday released a statement saying Scannell and his family have been under "extreme stress" since the shooting and that Scannell is still dealing with post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety caused by the shooting. The statement also asserted Scannell did not act criminally.

"All of the alleged events in this case occurred while he was suffering in the darkest hours of his severe depression," attorney Richard Swanson said.

Scannell remains Cook County attorney but is on indefinite medical leave. Two assistant county attorneys are handling duties.

A small group of people in Grand Marais have been protesting every Friday outside the Courthouse for nearly a year, asking Scannell to resign.

"There's gotta be some lines, and high school is one of those lines. Every grown up needs to stay the hell away from the high school, at least when it comes to dating," Grand Marais bartender Gary Nesgoda, one of the protestors, said after charges were announced.

Nesgoda and others also say the past year has divided lifetime friends in Grand Marais.