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Cook County Board votes to remove Scannell from office

GRAND MARAIS —The Cook County Board of Commissioners on Thursday removed County Attorney Tim Scannell from office, six days after his conviction for two felony sex crimes, and months of protests and other calls for his ouster.

The board voted unanimously, 5-0, to adopt a motion determining that Scannell vacated his position the moment a St. Louis County jury found him guilty of the crimes. Assistant County Attorney Molly Hicken, who is running unopposed in this fall’s general election, was appointed to serve out the final five months of the term.

The action came during a 15-minute special board meeting at the Cook County Courthouse. Scannell, 48, was not in attendance.

“Nine months ago, we as your board of commissioners, asked you the community to remain patient and allow the legal process to run its arduous course,” Commissioner Garry Gamble told meeting attendees. “As frustrating — even infuriating at times — as this journey has been, you have endured, reinforcing the integrity of the legal process and making justice possible.”

Scannell and his attorney, Joe Tamburino, did not immediately respond to the News Tribune’s requests for comment.

Scannell was convicted last Friday by a St. Louis County jury of two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct following a weeklong trial. The jury determined that Scannell was in a position of authority over a 17-year-old girl in the summer of 2012 when he kissed her and touched her breasts.

Scannell admitted at trial that he was in a relationship with the girl, but said their contact was limited to kissing. He later issued an apology to the girl, her family and the Cook County community that he represented, but did not step down from office.

The board, prior to casting its vote, consulted with St. Cloud-based attorney Dyan Ebert, who was hired by the county to advise the board on the Scannell matter. While Cook County does not have specific rules for the removal of an elected official from office, Ebert advised board members that case law and precedent supported Scannell’s removal by the commissioners.

Ebert said any elected official that commits an “infamous crime” — a felony — while in office vacates that position. There was some discussion about whether a conviction becomes final at the time of the jury’s verdict or at sentencing, but Ebert said a 1952 Attorney General’s opinion opens the door for the official’s removal immediately following the verdict. Minnesota state statutes also define a conviction as a “verdict of guilty by a jury.”

“There is support for the position that the conviction actually occurs at the time the jury renders its verdict,” Ebert told commissioners by telephone.

The board was brief in its discussion, moving to the motion quickly and voting unanimously.

By midday, the county’s website had already been updated to reflect Scannell’s removal and Hicken’s ascent to the county attorney position.

Jason Zimmer, a Cook County resident who has called for Scannell’s removal since the relationship was first revealed in December 2012, was in attendance at the meeting. Zimmer said he first spoke in front of the board that month, and was frustrated that Scannell had remained with the county.

“It’s huge that we’re finally done with this,” Zimmer said. “It’s a big move for the county. Finally, we can start healing. We can move in the right steps.”

Board members said they wanted to take immediate action after the convictions because their hands had been tied throughout the process, even after Scannell’s October 2013 grand jury indictment. The law, they said, required a conviction before they could take action.

“We’ve been a very patient board,” Vice Chair Bruce Martinson said after the meeting. “There have been constant requests from the public to take action. But, under counsel, we were advised that we would have to wait for the process to be completed. If there was a conviction, then we could move forward with taking action.”

Scannell is being replaced by a woman he described as a “superhero” during his trial last week. Hicken, an assistant county attorney since 2007, was present in the county attorney’s office when Scannell was shot four times by a man he had just prosecuted on criminal sexual conduct charges in December 2011.

Hicken, with the help of a bailiff, was able to wrestle a gun out of Daniel Schlienz’s hands and throw it across the room, out of reach, as they waited for police to arrive on scene.

Hicken, 35, has seen her role in the office increase since the shooting, handling both criminal and civil cases. Scannell had worked sparingly since that time, undergoing several surgeries as part of his recovery. He had been on medical leave from the county since October 2013.

Hicken was the lone candidate to file for the county attorney position in November’s general election.