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Grand Rapids attorney accused of raping client

Jesse Powell is facing five counts of criminal sexual conduct for alleged actions toward two women as other potential victims are being asked to come forward.

FILE: Itasca County Courthouse
The Itasca County Courthouse and Law Enforcement Center in Grand Rapids is pictured on May 14, 2020. Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
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A Grand Rapids attorney is accused of raping a client in his office during a meeting this summer.

Jesse Robert Powell, 32, of Bigfork, was charged Monday in State District Court with five sex crimes stemming from an alleged pattern of inappropriate comments and physical conduct toward women.

Two women are identified in the complaint as victims of Powell's actions, with one reporting she was pushed into a bathroom and forced to engage in sexual intercourse. They are now asking other potential victims to come forward.

"Jesse Powell victimized us at a time when we were vulnerable and when we needed his help in court," the women said in a statement issued through a victims' advocacy group. "Now we have to go to court because of his inappropriate sexual misconduct and sexual assault of us. We need justice."

The defendant operates Powell Law, PLLC, at 1045 E. U.S. Highway 169 in Grand Rapids. He was first licensed to practice in Minnesota in 2015, and previously worked in the Itasca County Attorney's Office.

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Powell's license remained active Tuesday and no disciplinary petition had been filed with the Minnesota Supreme Court. Susan Humiston, director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, confirmed that an investigation was underway, but said "our confidentiality rules prevent further comment on the status."

Powell did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

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To avoid any conflicts of interest, the criminal investigation was referred to the Aitkin County Sheriff's Office and the case is being prosecuted by Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson.
Powell was charged by summons with a felony count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct and four gross misdemeanor counts of fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct. No date was immediately scheduled for an arraignment.

All three judges chambered in Itasca County have recused themselves, and the case is now assigned to Judge Annie Claesson-Huseby, of Bemidji.

The complaint states that the investigation started in September, when the first victim came forward to report Powell's actions. She was going through a divorce and records confirmed that she had retained him as her attorney in February.

The woman said she went to Powell's office on March 2 and he pressed himself against her in a hug. She then asked to use the restroom and he initially tried to block the door from closing, saying she could use the restroom in front of him. The complaint states he eventually relented and the woman closed and locked the door.

"After coming out of the bathroom, Powell made a comment about her chest, wanting to see her breasts, and told her he wanted to show her his penis before the end of the night," the complaint states. "He also mentioned to her that she should have come out of the bathroom with less clothes on."

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The victim said she returned to the office March 23, at which point Powell again hugged her and placed his hands on the clothing over her breasts.

When she returned on June 3, the attorney allegedly pushed the victim into the bathroom and raped her. The complaint states that the victim "froze" during the nonconsensual act and that Powell is "much bigger than her and intimidating."

The woman reported that she returned to drop off paperwork on July 28 and the attorney made sexual comments, tried to put his tongue in her mouth and groped her over the top of her clothing. The complaint states that she returned for a Zoom hearing on Aug. 2 and he exposed himself, forcing the woman to touch his genitals.

The client then hired a new attorney, reporting to authorities that Powell continued to try to contact her.

The complaint states that Aitkin County investigator Steve Cook also made contact the second client after discovering she had filed a harassment restraining order against Powell in March.

The woman reported that she had hired Powell for a case in September 2020 and that the attorney had rubbed his hand on her thigh, took a picture of her with his cellphone and made a comment about a photo of her in a swimsuit during a meeting. The complaint states that she also asked him at one point about removing a security device from a shirt and he replied that he "would help her take her shirt off."

The former client told Cook that Powell had added her on Snapchat and invited her to his home, which she refused. Feeling uncomfortable with his actions, she contacted the ethics board.

In a response letter, Powell allegedly wrote that the "incidents of physical contact referred to was nothing more than me getting her attention, as our case was getting called by the judge over Zoom, and she was on her cellphone." He also allegedly wrote that the shirt comment was a "misunderstood joke" and blamed his behavior on medication that caused "several side effects and uncharacteristic behavior."

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A review of public personnel files from Itasca County revealed that Powell, who worked as an assistant county attorney from 2016 to 2020, had been suspended for five days in 2018 for violating the county's respectful workplace behavior policy. Supervisors concluded he had made a series of inappropriate comments about the appearances of female co-workers, including at least one remark about a female colleague's breasts.

Any additional victims were encouraged to contact the Aitkin County Sheriff's Office at 218-927-7435 and the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility at 651-296-3952.

"We, with the help of our advocate Melissa Scaia, would be willing to provide support to other victims who are willing to make a report," the two alleged victims said in their statement. "If you make a report, you will not be alone and will be provided the support you need."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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