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Minnesota attorney sent to prison, faces disbarment for sexually assaulting clients

After admitting to the assaults of four women, Itasca County attorney Jesse Powell entered into a stipulation calling for his removal from the bar.

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The Itasca County Courthouse and Law Enforcement Center in Grand Rapids.
Steve Kuchera / 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune
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GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — An Itasca County attorney has been sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison and is expected to be disbarred after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting four clients.

Jesse Robert Powell, 33, of Bigfork, received the 78-month sentence from Judge Annie Claesson-Huseby on Tuesday, Dec. 6, in State District Court in Grand Rapids. The term is consistent with a plea agreement reached in September, when Powell pleaded guilty to four counts of felony fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Jesse Robert Powell
Jesse Robert Powell

Powell, a former Itasca County prosecutor who more recently operated a private firm in Grand Rapids, also entered into a stipulation with the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility in late October. The agreement, calling for his disbarment, is still awaiting final approval from the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The charges, filed last December and amended several times as additional victims came forward, outlined a lengthy pattern of sexual harassment and assault toward women he represented through Powell Law PLLC, where he handled criminal defense and family law cases.

Many of the women were in vulnerable positions, going through divorces or child custody disputes, and the charges alleged that he groped the clients on numerous occasions. Most of the incidents were reported to have occurred at his office, but others were reported at Powell's home and at least one victim's workplace.

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The alleged victims said they had "buried" their experiences, but were inspired to come forward after two other women recently spoke to police about the conduct of Jesse Powell.

Several of the women reported that they were raped by Powell — including in the bathroom of his law office — and prior to entering in the plea agreement, he had been facing several more serious counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, along with racketeering.

The agreement simply required that he admit to using force to touch the genital areas of the four women, with sexual intent.

A victim who released a statement to the News Tribune in December said she was disappointed that Powell "is not being held accountable for all of his assaults, or even the highest level of his assaults." She also noted that he has remained out of custody and has not had his law license revoked.

"When you hire a lawyer, you expect to have someone that is going to help you, to fight for you, that you can trust," said the woman, who hired Powell for a divorce case. "They take an oath. Powell broke that oath. Powell preyed on me, because he thought I was weak. Powell is not a lawyer. He is a predator."

The woman said Powell "stole my health, my sense of safety, my trust in others and my self-worth." She said activities as simple as using a public restroom "instantly bring me back to Powell's office" and she suffers from nightmares, PTSD, depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Along with doctor's appointments, therapy and other expenses, she said she ended up spending another $20,000 in legal fees to hire a new lawyer to handle her divorce case.

"I get angry when I think of how Powell hunts for his victims, under the guise of helping us, and how he kept getting away with it," she said. "I went to Advocates for Family Peace for help, only to be given the name and number of a monster. Powell offered them a special rate for the people they sent his way. People that were already in vulnerable situations. He thought we would be easy targets."

"I get angry when I think of how (Jesse) Powell hunts for his victims, under the guise of helping us, and how he kept getting away with it," one of the victims told the News Tribune.

The woman said there were signs of Powell's misconduct that should have been identified sooner. He left his previous employer, the Itasca County Attorney's Office, in 2020 after substantiated complaints about inappropriate comments directed toward female colleagues. A harassment restraining order also had been granted to one of the victims by a judge in March 2021, well before authorities began the criminal investigation.

To avoid conflicts of interest, the case was investigated by the Aitkin County Sheriff's Office and prosecuted by Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson. The three judges chambered in Grand Rapids all recused themselves.

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While the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility opened an investigation after Powell was initially charged, the attorney was not formally prohibited from practicing law until his license was suspended for nonpayment of registration dues Aug. 2.

In the Oct. 26 stipulation recommending disbarment, Powell unconditionally admitted to seven counts of unprofessional conduct: four pertaining to the sexual assault convictions, two for failing to diligently represent clients and one for failing to cooperate with the administrative investigation.

Powell, who had been free on bond, was taken into custody after Tuesday's sentencing. With good behavior, he will likely be eligible for supervised release in early 2027.

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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