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Minnesota attorney pleads guilty to sexually assaulting clients

"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 said.

FILE: Itasca County Courthouse
The Itasca County Courthouse and Law Enforcement Center in Grand Rapids is pictured in 2020.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
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GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — An Itasca County lawyer will serve prison time after admitting to sexually assaulting four female clients.

Jesse Robert Powell, 33, of Bigfork, Minnesota, pleaded guilty Friday, Sept. 16, in State District Court to four felony counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Jesse Robert Powell
Jesse Robert Powell

Powell, a former prosecutor who has more recently operated a private criminal defense and family law firm in Grand Rapids, agreed to receive a 78-month prison term in exchange for the pleas.

"Powell has made me scared of people, places and situations that I shouldn’t be scared of," one of the victims told the Duluth News Tribune this week. "This won’t just go away. If you’re not safe from your lawyer, or in your lawyer’s office, when are you safe?

"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."

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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.

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.

Several of the women reported that they were raped by Powell — including in the bathroom of his law office. 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.

The victim who issued a statement 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.

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."

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.

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To avoid conflicts of interest, the case was investigated by the Aitkin County Sheriff's Office and is being prosecuted by Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson. The three judges chambered in Grand Rapids all recused themselves, handing the case to Judge Annie Claesson-Huseby, of Bemidji.

The Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility previously confirmed an investigation into Powell, but disciplinary proceedings have yet been initiated at the state Supreme Court and an official did not immediately respond to a request for an update on the case. Records show that Powell has let his license lapse due to non-payment of fees.

Under Minnesota law, Powell would be required to serve a little more than four years in prison before he is eligible for supervised release. Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 6.

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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