Blackmail Allegations Against Missouri Governor Spur Criminal Investigation and Resignation Calls

The prosecutor for the city of St. Louis will investigate blackmail allegations against Gov. Eric Greitens that threaten to end his political career.

By Bryan Lowry and Jason Hancock

The prosecutor for the city of St. Louis will investigate blackmail allegations against Gov. Eric Greitens that threaten to end his political career.

The allegations, first reported by KMOV in St. Louis, surfaced shortly after Greitens delivered his annual State of the State address Wednesday night. The ex-husband of Greitens' mistress gave the TV station an audio recording of the woman confessing the affair and accusing Greitens of blindfolding her and taking a nude photo against her will to blackmail her into silence.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner announced late Thursday afternoon that her office would launch an investigation into Greitens' actions.

Her decision came shortly after Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley's office indicated that it lacked jurisdiction on the matter and after several Missouri lawmakers called for Greitens' resignation.

"The serious allegations against Missouri Governor Eric Greitens are very troubling," Gardner, a former Democratic member of the Missouri House, said in a statement. "After further consideration, I have decided to launch a formal investigation into the alleged actions of Governor Greitens.

"It is essential for residents of the City of St. Louis and our state to have confidence in their leaders."

Greitens, a Republican who has been working to build a national profile, has admitted to the extramarital affair but through his attorney has vehemently denied the blackmail allegations. The woman involved in the matter has not made a comment, and the allegations were recorded without her knowledge by her ex-husband and released to the media without her consent.

Numerous Democratic lawmakers have called for Greitens to resign in the wake of the report. At least one Republican state senator says that if the allegations are true, Greitens should either resign or be impeached.

"The only way we can remove this cloud is to get all the facts," said Sen. Gary Romine, a Republican. "We need this to move as quickly as possible. If it exonerates him, we can move on. If it doesn't, he needs to resign or face impeachment."

Romine was part of a bipartisan group of state senators that signed a letter asking Hawley, the Republican attorney general, to investigate the allegations that Greitens threatened to blackmail a woman with whom he had an affair in 2015.

Hawley, a Republican who is mounting a campaign for U.S. Senate, is already investigating use of a self-destructing messaging app by members of the governor's staff. However, Hawley's office put out a statement indicating that it lacked jurisdiction to begin an investigation into the alleged blackmail.

Rep. Brandon Ellington, a Kansas City Democrat, issued a statement saying the governor could no longer serve while facing the accusations.

"I respect the governor's right to privacy, however, the reports against him regarding ... blackmail cannot be shielded as a family matter because blackmail is a felony," he said. "Due to the serious nature of these accusations, I believe Eric Greitens cannot effectively function as governor and I strongly urge him to resign."

"People accused of these egregious acts do not get to waive off the scrutiny of law enforcement simply because they are in a position of power; and victims of these crimes deserve our full support," Senate Democratic leaders Gina Walsh of St. Louis County and Kiki Curls of Kansas City said in a statement.

Most GOP leaders in Missouri reacted cautiously. They did not disown Greitens, but they did not rush to defend him, either. Republican legislative leaders canceled their weekly Thursday news conference, citing an impending ice storm.

"Like many Missourians, we find these serious allegations shocking and concerning. As this situation is evolving, we expect the governor to be honest and forthright," Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, and other GOP leaders said in a joint statement Thursday morning.

The House adjourned without taking action on two bills it was expected to pass: a lobbyist gift ban and a bill pertaining to human trafficking.

"While the details of the story continue to emerge, the allegations made against the governor last night are deeply concerning. The governor must be forthright and accountable for his actions," House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Republican, said in a statement along with other GOP House leaders.

Sen. Mike Cierpiot, a Republican, declined to weigh in on the controversy.

"I have thoughts, but they remain private," Cierpiot said. "There's just not enough information."

Rep. Bryan Spencer, a Republican, urged caution.

"We don't know the facts. All we hear is what's in the news," Spencer said. "It's too early. There's too many times where people get in front of an issue without knowing the facts and look like fools."

Spencer noted that the governor admitted to the affair but said that more evidence would be needed to justify an investigation into the blackmail allegations.

"I want to see if there's evidence that warrants something. I don't want to go on just an allegation. In today's society, we can destroy people with just accusations," he said.

Rep. Mark Ellebracht, a Democrat, has called for a criminal investigation.

"My heart goes out to Mrs. Greitens and her family. They deserve all the privacy they can get. ... Infidelity is unfortunate, but it is not illegal," he said. "Blackmail is illegal. ... It is not fair for the governor to hide behind his family and use them as a shield for what should be a criminal investigation."

Rep. Jerome Barnes, a Democrat, said Greitens should resign regardless of whether the blackmail allegations are proven.

"He's a Navy SEAL. We have high standards to be a Navy SEAL. There should be high standards to be a governor also," Barnes said.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a Democrat, made a similar demand on Twitter, citing the governor's campaign promises.

"On his web site and throughout the campaign, Eric Greitens declares: WE MUST END THE CULTURE OF CORRUPTION. Now, I'm asking him to walk the walk. Resign immediately!" Nasheed said.

She later said on the Senate floor: "I don't know any woman who would go to her husband and lie about having an affair and how it happened. It's appalling that this chamber is so quiet on that issue."

Fallout over the allegations spilled over into national politics.

A campaign ad for Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner featuring Greitens will no longer be airing, a testament to the perceived danger for Republicans in standing behind Missouri's governor. And in Iowa, where Greitens campaigned late last year, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is facing pressure to return campaign contributions she received at the fundraiser he keynoted for her last year.

Greitens had been raising his national profile since first taking office just over a year ago. He traveled the country extensively to court GOP donors, and was widely considered to have aspirations for the White House.

Greitens, Missouri's first Jewish governor, is scheduled to headline the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual event in Las Vegas next month. Matt Brooks, the group's executive director, said Thursday that the organization plans to stand with Greitens.

"Eric is family to the RJC and as such our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family during this difficult time," Brooks said in an email. "Regarding his attendance at our meeting in Las Vegas, that is a decision that he and his wife will have to make in the coming weeks as they figure out how best to move forward."

(Katie Glueck and Lindsay Wise of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)

(c)2018 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.