The taxpayers of Minnesota’s Cook County could be on the hook for a big bill racked up during the 2013 prosecution of their county attorney for felony sex crimes.

Without input or approval from county commissioners, a judge appointed a special prosecutor to avoid a conflict of interest in the case against then-County Attorney Tim Scannell. Scannell was charged with having an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old girl.

Tom Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney, was picked by St. Louis County District Judge Shaun Floerke because he didn’t know Scannell and for his experience with federal and state litigation. Heffelfinger was paid $230 an hour — half his normal fee at the time, he said.

Heffelfinger’s bill, which accumulated over 18 months until Scannell was convicted and sentenced in a Duluth courtroom last September, totaled $165,063.

The unexpectedly large tab prompted Cook County officials to ask the Legislature for reimbursement. If the rare request is denied, the county says it might have to reduce public services next year or make residents pay the tab.

“This is such an odd case,” said state Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who introduced the reimbursement bill in January. “I’m not sure it sets a precedent that will open the floodgates to pay for special prosecutions.”

The bill has been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee and Finance Judiciary Division, chaired by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. Bakk said he’ll talk with Latz before seeking a hearing “because I don’t want this to create problems down the road.”

The County Board and other officials started discussions about reimbursement with Bakk and his House colleagues in October. Bakk had his staff do research to see if a similar bill had ever been brought to the Legislature.

He had a hunch it may had happened one other time, and he was correct. Carlton County received cash back for investigative costs in the case of 19-year-old Katie Poirier, who was abducted from a Moose Lake convenience store and killed in 1999. Unlike the Scannell case, though, that one was handled by county prosecutors and no attorney’s fees were sought.

Carlton County Attorney Thomas Pertler, who prosecuted the Poirier case, said the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) has a state-required fund that reimbursed his office for some expenses. He couldn’t recall how much money the Legislature provided.

County attorneys skittish

The Scannell case was referred to an outside investigating agency in December 2012. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office sought help from the BCA to investigate Scannell’s relationship with the girl. A restraining order had been issued prohibiting him from having contact with her.

In most circumstances, if a county attorney is prevented from prosecuting a case because of a conflict of interest, a county attorney refers the case to another county attorney. But in this case, it could have created the appearance of impropriety had Scannell been allowed to choose who might prosecute him, according to a court document filed on behalf of the BCA.

The investigator assigned to the case said he asked six county attorneys to review the investigation for potential charges, and all declined. Some said a special prosecutor was the right choice because of the close working relationship among county attorneys.

Heffelfinger was appointed in March 2013. Because the case involved possible misconduct by a public official, he asked a judge to appoint a special grand jury.

Scannell was indicted on two felony counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct for kissing and touching the girl in a sexual way on two occasions in 2012.

Scannell, a friend of the girl’s family, had blamed his conduct on post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a 2011 incident in which he was shot and wounded by a defendant at the Grand Marais courthouse.

Last summer, Scannell was convicted and ousted from office. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 300 hours of community service and 10 years of probation. He also was ordered to repay the county $1,704 for trial expenses.

Heffelfinger’s work on the case ended last September.

A blow to the budget?

Former Cook County Commissioner Bruce Martinson, who started discussions about reimbursement last fall, recently praised the appointment of Heffelfinger. The state must have wanted one of the best attorneys possible to send a message to other county attorneys that “you can’t abuse your authority as a person of influence with youth,” he said.

Before asking the Legislature to help pay Heffelfinger’s bill, the county approached the state attorney general’s office. Martinson was told that state law didn’t allow that office to cover expenses.

Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken said she worries that the unbudgeted prosecution tab will strain an already tight county budget. The $165,063 bill is nore than 50 percent of the county attorney office’s annual budget, she said.

The financial strain also could affect the level of service the county provides next year, said Auditor-Treasurer Braidy Powers. The board could cut the budget by the amount of the payment or have taxpayers pay it, he said.