Even in surrender, Missouri governor goes out fighting
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Even in surrender, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is going out fighting.
When he steps down Friday, the former Navy SEAL officer will be conceding political defeat amid allegations of sexual misconduct and campaign violations while still defiantly asserting that he’s done nothing worthy of being forced out of office.
He’s even hinted at a possible political comeback, declaring during his resignation announcement Tuesday that “this is not the end of our fight.” But political analysts say the man who had aspirations of becoming president could find a political revival challenging, especially in a #MeToo environment where he would be vulnerable to attack for allegedly taking a compromising photo of a woman during an extramarital affair in 2015.
Greitens’ resignation comes just two weeks after a speech in which he recalled his grueling SEAL training and asserted he would never stop fighting. But his departure was days in the making, as Greitens wrestled with mounting legal bills and the emotional pressures of defending against possible impeachment and a criminal trial.
On Wednesday, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner dismissed a felony charge accusing Greitens of tampering with computer data for providing his political fundraiser with the donor list of a veterans’ charity he founded. The dropped charge was the result of a deal proposed Saturday by Greitens’ defense attorneys offering his resignation in exchange, said Gardner spokeswoman Susan Ryan.
The governor on Saturday also called Republican consultant Jeff Roe, who headed Greitens’ aggressive public relations campaign, to inform Roe that he had decided to resign. Greitens’ legal bills had grown to a couple of million dollars, and his campaign staffers also were facing legal bills because of subpoenas from a House investigation.
Though Greitens had believed he could beat both a criminal charge and impeachment, “he couldn’t see the end without an immense financial and personal price to pay,” Roe told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Even though he’s quitting amid scandal, some Greitens voters said they still like him. Retiree Wilma Nelson said she would be open to voting for Greitens again if he sought to re-enter politics.
“I can’t fault him for giving up. So much money, so much stress, such strain on his young family. You can’t deal with such hate,” said Nelson, of Platte City.
Political science professor Jeremy Walling, of Southeast Missouri State University, said Greitens’ pledge to keep fighting seemed to be “some face-saving.”
Walling said several factors would make a political revival tougher for Greitens than for other scandal-plagued politicians. He said Greitens lacks deep support among Missouri’s Republican power brokers, and his acknowledged extramarital affair included claims of sexual misconduct. The allegations also extended to political fundraising violations.
“I think a comeback is going to be kind of difficult for this guy,” Walling said.
Gardner, the St. Louis prosecutor, said her decision to drop the data-tampering charge against Greitens was no indication that she believed he was innocent.
“I remain confident we have the evidence required to pursue charges against Mr. Greitens, but sometimes pursuing charges is not the right thing to do for our city or our state,” said Gardner, a Democrat.
Had the governor been convicted, Gardner said, it was unlikely that he would be sentenced to prison, given the type of charge he faced and the fact that he would be a first-time offender.
Greitens’ attorney Jim Martin acknowledged reaching out to Gardner to resolve the issue.
A St. Louis judge approved the agreement, which has seven stipulations, two of which are sealed and unavailable to the public. One of the open stipulations states that Greitens has agreed to release Gardner and everyone in her office from civil liability.
Former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Wolff said the agreement between Greitens’ attorneys and Gardner’s office is highly unusual because it protects Gardner and her staff from being sued for their actions and because Greitens did not have to plead guilty to any lesser charge.
“Here’s a guy who gets to get out of a felony charge just by agreeing to quit his job,” Wolff said. “Most people don’t get this deal.”
Jean Paul Bradshaw II, a former U.S. attorney for western Missouri, said the agreement to drop the case represents a “fair resolution” because Greitens’ resignation accomplished “the greatest public benefit” possible.
The governor also was indicted on an invasion-of-privacy charge in February in St. Louis for allegedly taking the photo of the woman who had been his hairdresser during their affair in 2015, before he was elected. That charge was dropped earlier this month, but a special prosecutor is considering whether to refile it.
Martin said he expected the remaining charge to be resolved soon, but he offered no details.
“I think what folks need to know is it’s now time to leave the governor alone and let him and his family heal,” Martin said.
Though Greitens had apparently decided to resign days earlier, he began the week as though he would continue his fight. On Monday, he spoke with attorney Catherine Hanaway about her legal defense of Greitens’ campaign, which already had turned over thousands of documents to a House investigatory committee.
On Tuesday morning, a Cole County judge ordered the campaign and a pro-Greitens group called A New Missouri to comply with a House subpoena seeking more records about potential coordination between the nonprofit organization, Greitens and his campaign. The judge said the names of any donors to A New Missouri could be redacted.
House Speaker Todd Richardson said Wednesday that he didn’t know whether the House still has the power or desire to enforce the subpoena now that Greitens is resigning.
Hanaway described the judicial ruling as “pretty innocuous,” adding that she did not think the order “had any effect on the decision” to resign.
Roe said Greitens had been prepared for a two-stage fight. He was first focused on the invasion-of-privacy charge, which was dropped during jury selection. Greitens had hoped to be acquitted, which Roe said would have allowed him to mount a full defense against the potential House impeachment proceedings. But the specter of those charges being refiled hampered what Greitens could say and do on both fronts, Roe said.
Roe also said it appeared likely that the House would vote to impeach Greitens, a step that would have prolonged his fight for several more months until a trial could be held on whether to remove him from office.
“The human and financial toll was too great,” Roe said. “And it was going to go on for too long.”
Salter reported from St. Louis. Associated Press writers Blake Nelson in Jefferson City and John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, contributed to this report.