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Itasca County Board picks new county attorney, but hears criticism of choice

The Itasca County Board of Commissioners listens to a letter written by Rae Florek asking the Board not to hire Jim Austad at its May 28, 2024, meeting.
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ICTV
The Itasca County Board of Commissioners listens to a letter written by Rae Florek asking the Board not to hire Jim Austad at its May 28, 2024, meeting.

The Itasca County Board of Commissioners decided to move forward with the process of appointing Jim Austad at its Tuesday, May 28, meeting, despite a plea not to hire him.

GRAND RAPIDS — The Itasca County Board chose a replacement for departing County Attorney Matti Adam, appointed in April as a district judge by Gov. Tim Walz.

In a 4-1 vote at the May 28 Board meeting, commissioners selected Jim Austad, a former assistant Itasca County attorney who has since served as county attorney in Lake of the Woods and under Attorney General Keith Ellison as an assistant attorney general.

The selection is pending salary negotiations, but if appointed, the Board’s pick would serve through the 2026 election, when he could run to continue in the office. County Administrator Brett Skyles said in an email Monday no decisions have been made regarding salary and all discussion will take place at future Board meetings.

Austad has been practicing law since 2003 and his background also includes working as an assistant public defender in the Minnesota Public Defender’s Office and as a solo practitioner.

Austad scored the highest of four candidates, according to the commissioners viewing scoresheets. Other candidates interviewed were former Itasca County Attorney John Dimich and assistant Itasca County attorneys Todd Webb and Jacob Fauchald. The interview committee included County Commissioner Casey Venema, Sheriff Joe Dasovich and a member of the public.

“With him scoring the highest he’s obviously the person that we as a group would select,” Venema said.

The possibility of Austad’s appointment did not go without public comment at the meeting. One resident pleaded with the Board to select anyone but Austad, citing her own negative experience as a victim.

Rae Florek of Taconite told the Board she was a victim of intimate relationship sexual assault in 2013. Through a statement read by a friend because throat cancer prevents Florek from speaking, she recounted her experience with the justice system in Itasca County.

Florek reported the assault, but the Itasca County Attorney’s Office declined to bring charges against her ex-boyfriend Randall L. Vannet. Florek said Austad reviewed her case before the office decided not to prosecute. She also alleges that, in 2019, Austad made slanderous comments about her to her attorney.

Austad could not be reached for comment.

Vannet was later found liable for the assault in 2017 in a civil suit and a jury awarded Florek $5,000 in damages. The verdict was affirmed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals two years later. Florek’s case was profiled in a 2018 Reveal News investigative series examining how rape goes unpunished in America.

Rae Florek, right, looks at the Itasca County Board of Commissioners as Katie Jarva reads a letter Florek wrote asking the Board not to hire Jim Austad at the May 28, 2024 meeting.
Contributed
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ICTV
Rae Florek, right, looks at the Itasca County Board of Commissioners as Katie Jarva reads a letter Florek wrote asking the Board not to hire Jim Austad at the May 28, 2024 meeting.

Visibly emotional as her letter was read, Florek wrote that her case was a true failure of justice and she believed hiring Austad would put future victims at risk.

“I feel that Jim Austad is a liability to Itasca County and to we the people,” Florek’s letter stated. “To rehire him would feel criminal in and of itself. Sometimes I ask myself the question who is responsible for tainting my life, and I feel that he is one of them.”

Before the Board voted, Commissioner Cory Smith said he wanted more time to review the candidates. He suggested tabling the decision but did not make a motion to do so.

Commissioner Burl Ives said he understood Smith’s concern, but he wished to move forward with Austad.

“I think — and this is just me speaking — with us understanding the committee’s role, I would be OK with accepting the committee’s role and their choices to move forward, at the least, to figure out if we can even afford the person that they have picked,” Ives said.

The Board voted 4-1 to proceed with negotiations, with Smith opposed.

Megan Buffington joined the KAXE newsroom in 2024 after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Originally from Pequot Lakes, she is passionate about educating and empowering communities through local reporting.