Government & Politics

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens resigns, ending political career once aimed at presidency

Eric Greitens stormed into the Governor’s Office in January 2017 vowing to clean up a state government he said was corrupt.

He resigned Tuesday — effective at 5 p.m. Friday — just as abruptly as he had arrived on Missouri's political scene, his career buried under an avalanche of scandal and felony charges.

Even as he announced his historic decision to step down, Greitens asserted his innocence and argued that he was the victim of a political conspiracy.

"This ordeal has been designed to cause an incredible amount of strain on my family. Millions of dollars in mounting legal bills, endless personal attacks designed to cause maximum damage to family and friends," he said.

"It's clear that for the forces that oppose us there is no end in sight. I cannot allow those forces to continue to cause pain and difficulty for the people that I love."

Greitens is the first Missouri governor to resign since 1857, when Gov. Trusten Polk left office during his second month as governor to take a U.S. Senate seat.

Mike Parson, 63, a fellow Republican and former sheriff who served 11 years in the General Assembly before being elected as lieutenant governor in 2016, will take over as Missouri’s 57th governor. He’ll finish Greitens’ term, which runs until January 2021.

A Rhodes scholar and former Navy SEAL, Greitens was once considered one of the brightest stars in the Republican Party — a rock star who traveled the country campaigning for his fellow GOP governors, all while building his national profile and donor base for an almost inevitable run at the White House.

His political persona was based on a pledge to rid state government of “corrupt career politicians.” But the governor’s mansion was never more than a pit stop for the ambitious 44-year-old who had never even sought public office before his successful 2016 campaign.

Scandal plagued

His first year in office was dominated by a steady stream of corruption allegations, most stemming from his reliance on anonymous campaign contributions routed through secretive nonprofits.

On the night last January when he delivered his 2018 State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature, the scandal that began his undoing became public. A woman with whom he had an affair in 2015 alleged that he took a nude photo without her consent to use as blackmail to keep her from talking about their relationship.

Over the next five months, Greitens faced a barrage of accusations of criminal wrongdoing. Each time he remained defiant, shrugging off all allegations and vowing to remain in office.

A St. Louis grand jury indicted him in February on one felony count of invasion of privacy, stemming from the woman's accusations.

In March, a House committee investigating Greitens as a precursor to impeachment released a bombshell 25-page report of its findings. The woman with whom Greitens had the affair testified to the committee under oath that in March 2015 he had taped her hands to pull-up rings, blindfolded her, spit water into her mouth, ripped open her shirt, pulled down her pants and taken a photo of her.

She said Greitens threatened to make the photo public if she ever told anyone about their encounter, and called her "a little whore.” When she tried to leave the basement of his St. Louis home, she told the committee, Greitens grabbed her in a "bear hug,” laid her on the floor, pulled out his penis and coerced her into oral sex while she wept “uncontrollably.”

The graphic allegations inspired a parade of high-ranking Missouri Republicans, including Attorney General Josh Hawley, to demand that Greitens resign or face impeachment.

The felony charges stemming from the affair were dropped by the St. Louis prosecutor, but a judge assigned Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to review the case to consider whether to file any charges.

In early May, the House committee released a second report, this one documenting allegations that Greitens knowingly lied to the state ethics commission about how he came to possess a donor list belonging to The Mission Continues, a veterans charity he founded in 2007. That would be a class A misdemeanor.

The St. Louis prosecutor charged Greitens with a second felony — computer tampering — over the allegations that Greitens had stolen a charity donor list and misused it to raise money for his 2016 campaign.

Along the way, Greitens was accused of using a self-destructing text message app called Confide to circumvent the state's open records laws.

He was accused by former campaign staff of exploring the idea of raising money from foreign donors, which would violate a federal law that prohibits campaigns from knowingly accepting money from foreign nationals.

He was accused of using shell companies to filter donations to his campaign to hide the source of the money.

Most recently, he was accused of using his political nonprofit, A New Missouri Inc., to illegally circumvent the state's campaign disclosure laws.

A Cole County judge on Tuesday ordered the nonprofit to abide by a subpoena issued by the House investigative committee and turn over communications and documents showing potential coordination among the nonprofit, the governor and the governor's campaign committee, as well as expenditures related to advertising.

“It looks like Eric Greitens came to power protecting his secret donors and now he’s leaving power protecting his secret donors," said state Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph.

"There was probably some information being subpoenaed that he did not want out there. I think it will go down in Missouri history that this governorship was all about dark money … and I think the people of Missouri will demand that dark money will be outlawed."

A New Missouri was created in February 2017 by Greitens’ closest political advisers. It is housed in the same building as his campaign committee, and the two share some staff. The building was purchased shortly before the creation of A New Missouri by one of Greitens’ biggest campaign donors.

A New Missouri has been accused of being a conduit for money to fight off a union-backed effort to repeal Missouri's right-to-work law. The nonprofit donated $1.2 million to a PAC that failed at its task of putting a pro-right-to-work initiative petition on the ballot this year.

Most of the PAC's money went to political allies of the governor.

Lawmakers were expected to gather next week in Jefferson City to debate impeaching Greitens, the first step toward removing him from office.

And Greitens also was facing increased political pressure to step off the stage to avoid undercutting GOP efforts to unseat U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat considered among the most vulnerable incumbents running for re-election this fall.

Greitens has been publicly sparring with Hawley, the front-runner for the GOP Senate nomination, and many worried the squabble could doom Republican chances of holding on to control of the U.S. Senate.

Hawley released a statement Tuesday evening saying: "Gov Greitens has done the right thing today. I wish incoming Gov. Mike Parson well, and stand ready to assist him in his transition. This Office’s work for the people of Missouri goes forward.”

Blind ambition

It is a dramatic fall from grace for a politician whose resume was straight out of central casting.

He grew up in St. Louis County, the son of a special education teacher and a U.S. Department of Agriculture worker. He studied ethics, philosophy and public policy at Duke University.

Selected as a Rhodes scholar, he earned a master’s degree and a doctorate at the University of Oxford in England. His doctoral thesis investigated how international humanitarian organizations can best serve war-affected children.

Throughout his time in school, Greitens did humanitarian work around the globe — Croatia, Rwanda, Bolivia and India. After leaving Oxford, he joined the military, becoming a Navy SEAL in 2001 and eventually serving in Southeast Asia, Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq.

When he came home from Iraq, Greitens founded The Mission Continues, a nonprofit aimed at empowering wounded and disabled veterans to begin new lives as citizen leaders here at home. He wrote several books and became a regular fixture on the lecture circuit and in the media.

In 2013, Time Magazine named him to its list of the 100 most influential people in the world, and in 2014 Fortune Magazine listed him as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders.

But the driving force behind his life, it seems, has always been blind ambition.

In 2009, he reserved the website EricGreitensForPresident.com.

Last October, Greitens was in Iowa helping the state's Republican governor raise money and raising his profile in the state that holds the first presidential contest every four years.

Legislative leaders praised Greitens' resignation.

“We believe the Governor has put the best interest of Missourians first today by choosing to resign," said House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, in a joint statement with other GOP House leaders. "The past few months have been difficult for everyone involved, including the Governor and his family. This is a serious and solemn occasion that reminds us that our state and our duty are bigger than any one person or party."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said the governor’s announcement "marks the conclusion to a drama that has drawn on for far too long. It is regrettable the state of Missouri is in this position, but far more regrettable would have been for this spectacle to continue to drag on."

Democrats weren't as kind to the soon-to-be ex-governor.

“The brief and deeply troubled term of Eric Greitens is a case study for why Missouri's highest elected office is no place for beginners," said House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City. "Gov. Mike Parson possesses the integrity his predecessor lacked, and House Democrats will offer him whatever assistance we can as he begins the difficult task of restoring credibility to state government.”

Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis County, said in a statement that "innocent people don’t resign and criminals don’t get let off the hook simply because they cut and run. Missourians deserve to know what laws were broken, what lies were told, and how deep the corruption went."

Prosecutor Baker said in a statement that her office's investigation continues and "will be pursued without fear or favor."

The Star's Glenn E. Rice contributed to this article.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

  Comments