Republican legislative leaders joined together Tuesday to demand that Gov. Eric Greitens resign, with the state Senate president going one step further and saying that if he doesn't step down the governor should be immediately impeached.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, issued a statement Tuesday night saying that Greitens "has no other respectable option than to resign from office."
"Serving the people of Missouri is an extraordinary honor, one I believe requires each elected official to rise to the occasion," Richard said. "Sometimes that occasion is knowing when it’s time to step aside. Because of the severity of the allegations, it is my wish that we immediately start impeachment proceedings."
House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, did not go as far as Richard, saying only that the governor should resign but stopping short of calling for impeachment.
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In a statement along with other House leaders, Richardson said that when elected officials "lose the ability to effectively lead our state, the right thing to do is step aside. In our view, the time has come for the governor to resign."
Greitens quickly issued a statement that said, in part: "I will not be resigning from the Governor's office."
The new calls for Greitens' removal hours came after Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican, announced that his office had uncovered alleged criminal wrongdoing by Greitens regarding his campaign's use of a donor list belonging to a veterans charity called The Mission Continues.
Hawley said his team found evidence that Greitens had committed a felony by obtaining and transmitting the charity’s donor list for political fundraising. Hawley has turned over the evidence to the St. Louis prosecutor, who has jurisdiction.
The governor has faced increasing pressure from leading members of his own party to resign after the release last week of a Missouri House committee's report detailing allegations of sexual violence and blackmail against the governor in 2015. He was indicted by a St. Louis grand jury in February on one felony charge of invasion of privacy stemming from those allegations.
Richardson has said he wants the Missouri General Assembly to call itself into special session later this year to debate any possible disciplinary actions against Greitens — which could include impeachment. A petition began circulating the Capitol Tuesday night seeking the 123 signatures needed for the House to convene a special session.
Democrats have said impeachment should start immediately and have threatened to derail the remaining month of the 2018 legislative session unless GOP leaders begin the process of removing Greitens from office.
“With each passing day, the evidence that Eric Greitens is unfit to serve as governor mounts," said House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City. "He should spare himself and the people of Missouri the ordeal of impeachment proceedings and resign without further delay. If Greitens continues to stubbornly cling to power, the House must immediately act to initiate his ultimate removal from office.”
In a series of defiant public statements, Greitens has called the allegations against him "tabloid trash," a "political witch hunt" and "ridiculous."
His criminal trial is scheduled to begin next month.
In his statement Tuesday night, Greitens said: "In three weeks this matter will go to a court of law — where it belongs and where facts will prove my innocence. Until then I will do what the people of Missouri sent me here to do: to serve them and work hard on their behalf."
Former GOP state chair John Hancock said he thought Greitens should step down even before Hawley made his announcement.
"I find it breathtaking that he hasn’t come to that same conclusion at this point," Hancock said.
Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican and outspoken critic of the governor, said Hawley's announcement doubles the pressure on lawmakers to take steps to remove Greitens from office. He said he's heard from many lawmakers that they needed "one more thing" to push them to support impeachment.
"And if that’s true," he said, "then this is the one more thing."
Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri, said Hawley's allegations against Greitens make his ability to hang on in Jefferson City less tenable.
"It really puts him in a spot where there aren’t any good outcomes for him," Squire said. "For somebody who didn’t have any friends in Jefferson City to start with, he certainly doesn’t have any to lean on now."
The Missouri Constitution says executive officials can be impeached “for crimes, misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, or any offense involving moral turpitude or oppression in office.”
That's led some to question whether Greitens can be impeached for alleged criminal behavior that took place before he was sworn into office.
Attorney James Layton, a former state solicitor general who also taught state constitutional law at the University of Missouri, told the Associated Press that it would be difficult to impeach someone for misconduct that occurred before that person held office.
But, Layton added: “I think there’s a very good argument that misconduct in the process of gaining office would be grounds for impeachment.”
Hawley, who also taught constitutional law at the University of Missouri before running for office, said last week that the allegations included in the House report were "certainly impeachable." Asked Tuesday about whether the new allegations regarding Greitens' use of the veterans charity's donor list rise to the level of impeachment, Hawley said they do but that it is "a decision for the House to make."
The attorney general's office has turned over all evidence from its investigation to the House committee.