The Missouri House committee investigating Gov. Eric Greitens met for the first time Tuesday night, beginning a process that could ultimately result in the governor’s impeachment.
It also could mark the last time the public will hear from the committee before it renders its judgment.
Future hearings, especially those involving witness testimony, will likely be closed to the public and the media.
A meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning won’t even be held in the Missouri Capitol. It will take place down the street at the Jefferson City Police Department. The committee's only action Tuesday night was to unanimously declare Wednesday's hearing closed.
Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican chairing the investigatory committee, says the secrecy is important for the process to work. He instructed reporters covering the hearing Tuesday night that it would be "wasting your time" to attempt to get comments about the investigation from anyone on the committee.
"As a committee that wants to go through a fact-finding process, having that completely open would destroy the very purpose of the committee," Barnes said. "We also have a responsibility to protect the identity and the privacy of witnesses, and we will do our best to make sure that happens.
But given the potentially historic nature of the committee’s work, some question the wisdom of keeping the public in the dark about a process that could result in a governor being removed from office.
“The last thing we need to do, given the situation, is to hide behind closed doors,” said House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat.
David Roland, director of litigation with the libertarian Freedom Center of Missouri, said that while he understands the arguments for closing the hearings, “I would always err on the side of making sure the public has the ability to oversee the functioning of its government.”
“And this,” he added, “is a very important part of the function of our government.”
The seven-member, bipartisan House committee is tasked with investigating the circumstances surrounding Greitens’ indictment last month by a St. Louis grand jury for felony invasion of privacy.
The charges stem from allegations that Greitens took a nude photo of a woman with whom he was having an affair, while her hands were bound and she was blindfolded, and threatened to release it if she ever publicly discussed their relationship.
Greitens has admitted to the 2015 affair but denies the blackmail allegations.
Barnes made it clear when discussing the committee’s work that any time a witness is testifying, “the hearing is going to be closed.”
“The best way to get accurate information is to close those hearings so that other potential witnesses don’t know what previous witnesses have said,” Barnes said.
Keeping the public and press out of the hearings also will help protect the privacy of the woman at the heart of the allegations.
Details of the 2015 affair, and the blackmail allegations, surfaced hours after Greitens delivered his annual State of the State address in January when a St. Louis television station aired an interview with the woman’s ex-husband and provided audio of a conversation he had recorded without her knowledge.
The recording was released without the woman’s consent, and she has declined to comment publicly or participate in any stories about the incident.
She has not been publicly identified in media reports.
Even those with heartburn about locking the public out of the committee’s meetings agree that protecting a potential victim’s identity is important.
“We are cognizant of the fact that there is one witness we would like to protect,” McCann Beatty said. “We don’t want to put the victim on trial. But at the same time, this needs to be as open as possible.”
Rep. Gina Mitten, a St. Louis County Democrat who serves on the investigative committee, said her heart goes to the woman involved because “nobody asks to be a victim.”
But the allegations against the governor are too serious for the legislature to ignore, Mitten said.
“Just because a victim wants anonymity doesn’t mean we don’t do our job,” she said.
Barnes said there will eventually be full transcripts of the committee’s work, “with a small asterisk.”
“There may be testimony that has personally identifying information about certain people that I anticipate we will redact,” he said. “If there are embarrassing facts revealed that have no relevance to official action, and I’m not sure what those would be right now, but the committee may decide that’s something that doesn’t need to be in the public record. The committee will be free to protect privacy in that way.”
The committee is scheduled to deliver its findings to the House on April 8. The governor’s trial is set to begin May 14, and the 2018 legislative session ends May 18.
If lawmakers decide to impeach Greitens and ultimately remove him from office, they may do so before his innocence or guilt is decided in a St. Louis courtroom.
McCann Beatty said she has voiced concerns to legislative leaders about the possibility that a House investigation could taint the criminal inquiry.
“We need to make sure that process can play out, however it plays out,” she said, later adding: “Presumably, we’ll finish our process before the criminal process takes place. … It could happen that we could move for impeachment and the criminal case comes back and says he’s not guilty.”
Frank Bowman, a professor at University of Missouri School of Law, said the constitution doesn’t require that the governor be proved to have violated the law for legislators to remove him from office.
“The impeachment process is a self-protective mechanism to get someone who ought not be in office out of office,” Bowman said. “They can impeach him and remove him regardless of whether a court has acted.”
Barnes said talk of impeachment is premature. The committee will conduct its investigation and follow the facts wherever they lead, he said.
“We don’t know until we talk to witnesses what the facts are,” he said, “because there’s been so many rumors around here, some absolutely crazy rumors around here, that we don’t know what is true and what is not.”
The committee’s sole job is to investigate underlying facts and report back to the Missouri House, Barnes said.
“This is a solemn and serious obligation,” he said. “We will do our best.”