Politics

Missouri's Eric Greitens Is Governing in the Dark

Between gag orders and secret funds, the governor isn't living up to his campaign promise of transparency.
by | June 2017
Eric Greitens gives a speech
Missouri Giv. Eric Greitens. AP Images

Missouri’s governor may not have anything to hide, but he sometimes acts as if he does.

Eric Greitens, a Republican and a former Navy SEAL, won the governorship last year in his first bid for public office. Much of his campaign funding came from donors whose identities were never disclosed, including a “dark money” group called LG PAC that spent $4 million on his behalf. Greitens also received a check for nearly $2 million -- then the record donation in Missouri -- from a group called SEALs for Truth. The way the money was shifted around means that the original source remains unknown in both cases.

The governor’s secretive fundraising continued after the campaign. Corporations and lobbyists gave money to pay for his inaugural festivities, but Greitens refused to say how much any of them had given, or the total amount he’d raised overall. Close associates of his have now set up a dark money group to promote his policy agenda. “Eric Greitens has shown that his campaign commitment to clean up the corruption in Jefferson City was a false promise,” says Progress Missouri, a liberal group.

It’s not just advocates on the left who are concerned. Some Republican senators upset about Greitens’ use of a dark money group forced debate about requiring such groups to disclose their donors at the end of the legislative session last month. Those senators quickly found themselves attacked in ads sponsored by the group associated with the governor.

But money isn’t the only issue. Greitens campaigned on the idea of openness, but he forced members of his transition team to sign gag orders banning them from speaking about their work. When he appears in public, Greitens sometimes brushes off reporters by telling them to make a request through staff, who in turn often tell them their requests aren’t a priority. “This is the most reclusive, inaccessible and unengaged governor I’ve ever covered,” Phill Brooks, a reporter for the CBS radio affiliate in St. Louis, told The Kansas City Star. Brooks has been at the statehouse since 1970.

Parker Briden, the governor’s press secretary, says that Greitens has given “many” interviews, while also holding news conferences and speaking occasionally with reporters in informal groups. But he doesn’t deny that Greitens will sometimes bypass reporters by putting his message out unfiltered through social media. “We really appreciate the opportunity to connect with people directly on that platform,” Briden says, “and it gives us the chance to let a large audience of people know that the governor is fighting for them.”

Briden is right when he says that increasing numbers of people are getting their news through social media. Still, in public life, it’s important for elected officials to remain accountable to their constituents, whose concerns are often expressed in the form of questions asked by reporters. For a self-described reformer to refuse to answer most of the questions put to him -- including the all-important question of who might be funding his agenda -- can only raise more questions. “It’s totally baffling,” says Ken Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University. “Everyone is perplexed and frustrated by his arrogance and total insensitivity to transparency. Government isn’t like a secret Navy SEAL operation.”

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