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Itasca County Courthouse, Grand Rapids, MInnesota
The Itasca County Courthouse, where sexual assault charges have been filed against attorney Jesse Powell. (Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr)

Grand Rapids attorney charged with sexually assaulting clients

A Grand Rapids attorney has been charged with criminal sexual assault after allegedly sexually assaulting clients. Jesse Powell, 32, has been charged with one count of third-degree and four counts of fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct.

According to Powell’s firm website, he practices in criminal defense and family law, including divorce and custody issues. He was a judicial law clerk in Minnesota for a year after graduating from the University of North Dakota School of Law in 2015 and then spent four years employed as an assistant Itasca County attorney.

Powell was suspended from the county attorney position for five days for allegedly sexually harassing his co-workers. Powell apparently made inappropriate comments of a sexual nature toward women regarding their physical attributes and asked a female co-worker to “wrestle” with him. There was an investigation and complaints were substantiated. Misconduct charges against Powell date back to 2018.

Aitkin County Investigator Steve Cook was assigned to investigate a sexual assault reported in Itasca County on Sept. 24, 2021. The woman reporting the assault had hired Powell to represent her in February 2021. At the time, the woman was going through a divorce from her husband. She went to Powell’s office on March 2, 2021, for a mediation meeting. She had a restraining order against her husband at the time.

Complaint outlines allegations

The complaint filed with Itasca County provides the following account:

Powell was the only one at his office. The woman expressed to Powell that she was nervous before the mediation meeting. When Powell gave her a hug, the victim reported to the investigator that she could feel Powell press his erect penis against her body.

After this incident, the woman asked Powell where the bathroom was. Powell showed her where the bathroom was and she went in. However, Powell allegedly would not let her close the bathroom door, instead telling her that she could use the bathroom in front of him. Eventually, Powell relented, she locked the door and used the bathroom. However, when she came out of the bathroom, Powell allegedly commented on her chest, expressed to her that he wanted to see her breasts, and told her that she should have come out of the bathroom wearing less clothing. He also allegedly told the woman that he wanted to show her his penis by the end of the night.

On June 3, 2021, the woman went to Powell’s office. This time, he pushed her into the bathroom, where she froze as he removed her clothing and raped her, the complaint said.

As her case was not yet over, the woman continued to work with Powell. The complaint says that on July 28, she dropped paperwork off at Powell’s office. Powell allegedly attempted to have sex with her and molested her over her clothing, but he did not rape her that time. On Aug. 2, 2021, the woman went to Powell’s office again for a pretrial hearing conducted on Zoom. Before the hearing began, the woman needed to use the bathroom. However, the complaint says, Powell walked into the bathroom ahead of her, pulling out his penis and placing her hand on it. Powell then put his hand on her throat, applying pressure, and smacked her buttocks. After the Zoom meeting was over, she never went to Powell’s office again and hired another attorney to represent her.

Second accuser

A second woman also reported Powell, and the complaint provides this account:

Powell met with the woman at his office in September 2021, and he attempted to play footsie with her during the meeting. He also made comments about her clothing and tattoos, took a picture of her on his cellphone without her permission, and remarked that he could help her take her shirt off. Later, Powell added the woman on Snapchat, inviting her to his home. After this incident, she reported Powell to the attorney’s licensing board.

The women, through their advocate, have issued a statement, asserting, “The sexual misconduct and sexual assault victims of attorney Jesse Powell are asking that if there are any other potential victims who have not made a report to the authorities to consider coming forward.”

Melissa Petrangelo-Scaia, an international trainer and expert witness on domestic violence, is acting as a contact for any additional sexual assault or sexual harassment victims. Victims can contact Petrangelo-Scaia at 218-969-3498. Additionally, victims can contact the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office at 218-927-7435 or the Lawyer’s Professional Responsibility Board at 651-296-3952 to report encounters with Powell.

Two of Powell’s acusers avow, “Jesse Powell victimized us at a time when we were vulnerable and when we needed his help in court. Now we have to go to court because of his inappropriate sexual misconduct and sexual assault of us. We need justice.”

In Minnesota, Rule 1.8(j) of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit lawyers from having sexual relationships with clients unless there was a consensual sexual relationship between the parties before representation began. As Robin Crabb wrote in a 2012 Minnesota Lawyer piece on the topic: “The rule is principally intended to protect vulnerable clients from being pressured into an unwanted relationship and from an attorney possibly delaying a matter in order to continue a relationship.”

If he is convicted, Powell could face 15 years in prison. Powell did not immediately respond to request for comment. However, in a letter dated Feb. 19, 2021, that Powell sent to the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, Powell said that his comments to the second woman were jokes, a slip of the tongue, and side effects of medication that he was taking.

The image accompanying this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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