By Kaitlyn Schwers And Bryan Lowry
CNN reported late Friday that the FBI is looking into Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, but the governor's personal attorney has called on the cable network to retract the report.
Citing information from two unnamed U.S. officials, CNN reported that the FBI recently opened an inquiry into the governor.
Jim Bennett, the governor's attorney, said in an email that he and his colleagues have "seen no indication of an FBI investigation, see no matter that is worthy of such an investigation, and do not believe that one exists. Any suggestion based on CNN's reporting that an investigation exists would not be accurate. Governor Greitens has not been contacted at any time by the FBI and we are not aware of any interest by the FBI."
A spokesman for CNN said in an email Saturday morning that the network stands by its reporting.
CNN also said it interviewed a 22-year-old man who said he volunteered to help with Greitens' transition team in December 2016. The man, identified as Eli Karabell, told the outlet that he was interviewed by two FBI agents in November.
It's unclear when the FBI might have opened an inquiry into Greitens or whether the conversation the man reportedly had with the FBI is related to the open inquiry two unnamed U.S. officials confirmed to the outlet.
Karabell said the interview with the FBI lasted for about an hour. CNN reported Karabell didn't say what he discussed with the two agents.
The CNN report does not say whether the reported federal inquiry is linked to the allegations of blackmail, which have spurred a criminal investigation in St. Louis.
Karabell has retained Albert Watkins, the same St. Louis attorney who is also representing the ex-husband of the governor's former lover who first brought the blackmail allegations to light.
Watkins said in an email to The Star Saturday morning that Karabell served as a Republican committeeman from March to November 2017 after volunteering for the governor's transition team.
"By virtue of his observations, interaction with Greitens officials and other Republican elected officials who had been targeted by Greitens, my client started lobbying others in the Republican party to call for an investigation into dark money use for attack ads, information procurement, and undermining of other Republican office holders. My client also actively sought answers to questions about dark money use from others in the Greitens circle," Watkins said in an email.
"My client was thereafter subjected to threatening phone calls; threats to ruin his political career and reputation, physical intimidation, and his family was contacted by a high level state Republican official. My client was threatened with being banned from the state capitol," he said.
Watkins' email also says that a state lawmaker told Karabell he also had been interviewed by the FBI regarding the governor's use of dark money -- donations routed through nonprofits and other organizations to hide their source.
That lawmaker, Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican who has railed against the governor's use of dark money, clarified that he has spoken to a federal agent about Greitens but was not formally interviewed.
"The answer is I have talked to an FBI agent many times over many years," Schaaf said in a phone call Saturday. "I wouldn't characterize my conversations as an interview. It's not like they go, 'We'd like to interview Sen. Schaaf.' It's more like we're talking. It's informal."
Schaaf said the FBI agents he has spoken to over the years never comment when an investigation is taking place, "but they are always interested in whatever perspective one has to offer" about the workings of state government.
"I have no idea whether they are or are not investigating the governor," Schaaf said, adding, "absolutely, I think they should."
The FBI could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an inquiry, said Bridget Patton, a spokeswoman for the Kansas City Division.
Bennett said in an email to The Star shortly before midnight Friday that he has asked the cable network to retract the report based on the report's use of Karabell as a source.
"I have notified CNN that this story should be retracted. Without getting into the details, it is sufficient to say the named source has a history of profane and aberrant behavior toward people associated with Governor Greitens dating back to last year to such a degree that Governor Greitens' press secretary had to block his calls and other members of the Missouri Republican Party staff felt threatened to the degree that senior leadership attempted to intervene with his family," Bennett said in an email.
A Twitter page that appears to belong to Karabell includes several posts criticizing the governor, some of which use profanity.
He called for Greitens to resign the day after KMOV-TV in St. Louis first reported on allegations that the governor blackmailed a woman to keep her quiet about an affair, calling the governor a "sexual predator" and his actions "unconstitutional, illegal & unconsciously cruel" in a series of tweets.
"I stand with the Hundreds of Missourians who have asked for this tyrant Governor to resign. Resign now!" Karabell tweeted.
Karabell applauded Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley's decision in December to launch investigation into the governor's staff's use of private messaging app.
"Eric shall meet his Waterloo & when that moment strikes I will be celebrating in complete joy. A disgusting disgrace Gov. Greitens happens to be," he tweeted.
And in November, the same month that Karabell told CNN he was interviewed by the FBI, he railed against Greitens and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.
"Why do they need to ignore me & or try to silence me? Because Missouri is full of Dark Money, Corruption & Graft from City Hall to Jefferson City & Joplin. Missouri needs new leadership," he tweeted.
Watkins said Karabell was interviewed by the FBI on Nov. 8 for roughly one hour and was advised that he might be contacted for followup questions, but he has received no contact information since that time.
Watkins also pushed back on Bennett's characterization of his client's behavior as profane and aberrant.
"Like beauty, that which is profane and aberrant lies in the minds of the beholder. That being said, it should not be at all surprising that the Governor would think that anyone critically inquiring of dark money use was profane and aberrant. One is compelled to embrace the real possibility that the Governor is an expert in all that is aberrant," he said.
The report of a federal inquiry comes more than a week after an audio recording was released of a woman who had an affair with Greitens. In that recording, the woman confessed to the affair and accused Greitens of blindfolding her and taking a nude photo against her will to blackmail her into silence.
On Saturday, in an interview with the Associated Press, Greitens did not directly say "yes" or "no" when asked if he had bound and blindfolded and taken a photo of the woman. But he firmly denied that he had attempted to coerce the woman.
"This was a consensual relationship," Greitens said. "There was no blackmail, there was no violence, there was no threat of violence, there was no threat of blackmail, there was no threat of using a photograph for blackmail. All of those things are false."
The allegations came shortly after Greitens delivered his annual State of the State address Jan 10. The woman's ex-husband gave KMOV an audio recording of her talking about the affair.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner announced Jan. 11 that her office would investigate Greitens' actions.
Watkins has previously said that he has shared tapes recorded by the ex-husband of the governor's former lover with both Gardner's office and the FBI.
Bennett said that he does "not believe that an FBI investigation exists -- not on this personal topic from three years ago or any other."
CNN's report uses the word inquiry rather than investigation, an important distinction, according to Jeff Lanza, a retired FBI agent who lives in Kansas City.
"The FBI does use what's called preliminary inquiry. It's basic and exploratory in nature and those generally use those types of inquiries, especially in the case of public officials.... The goal of a preliminary inquiry is to see if there's enough grounds for a full field investigation," said Lanza, who served as an agent for two decades.
During a preliminary inquiry, agents perform interviews and review public records in an effort to round out the allegations, Lanza said.
Lanza said that he has no knowledge of a possible inquiry into Greitens, but he explained that a preliminary inquiry typically lasts 30 to 90 days.
The Star's Lindsay Wise, Jason Hancock and Max Londberg contributed to this story.
(c)2018 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)