When Eric Greitens announced his plans to resign as governor of Missouri, he wore his familiar executive uniform–open necked shirt, blazer and jeans–a wardrobe that was supposed to reflect an approachable administration.
But Greitens, a Republican, was anything but open and available, at least as far as the news media were concerned. In his 17-month tenure as Missouri governor, Greitens avoided fielding questions that would measure what he knew about government. And when the scandal erupted Jan. 10 that would consume his office, he never stood to answer queries about it either.
Finally on May 29, in one of his last acts as governor, he spun on his heel and headed for an exit, as reporters shouted a question that had dogged him for four months, and which he still refused to answer.
“Governor! Did you take the photo?”
A former Navy SEAL who played his military background to the hilt, Greitens kept the drumbeat going until the very end. He said he would live to fight another day, but for now, he needed to tend the wounded. He said he was walking off the battlefield with his head held high.
“I have not broken any laws or committed any offense worthy of this treatment,” Greitens said. “I will let the fairness of this process be judged by history.”
It was a “pretty classless” resignation announcement, observed Roy Temple, the former chairman of the Democratic State Committee.
“He stood there and tried to paint himself as a victim,” Temple said in a telephone interview. “The least he could have done is accept responsibility for his actions, and he didn’t do it.”
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE
Years ago, when former Democratic Gov. Bob Holden brought the ambitious Eric Greitens to Temple’s attention, he thought he was too good to be true. Greitens was toying then with the idea of running for public office as a Democrat.
“Bob asked me to meet with him because he’s awesome,” Temple said. “You can’t believe it because he’s so good. The whole idea of it didn’t appeal to me.”
Greitens’ resume seemed to Temple so much like a “box checking exercise,” the Navy SEAL, the humanitarian, the Rhodes scholar, the author of best sellers, the savior of troubled veterans.
“I work in a business with a lot of ambitious people,” Temple said. “This always seemed to be too much.”
Then, in the summer of 2016, Temple became aware of the troubling information about Greitens’ treatment of a woman with whom he had had an extramarital affair. The story never changed–from the time Temple first heard it before the November, 2016 general election until the woman testified under oath to authorities this year: She was Greitens’ hairstylist and she had been invited to Greitens’ St. Louis home on March 21, 2015 when his wife, Sheena, was out of town. She said Greitens had stripped off her clothes and photographed her during a sexual encounter in the basement. She said Greitens had threatened to release the photo if she ever disclosed their relationship. During an encounter later, the woman said Greitens slapped her when she told him she had had sex with her husband.
Temple was unable to bring the situation to light.
Now after months of tawdry details becoming public about illicit sex and $100,000 cash payments, Greitens resigned as a result of a deal reached with St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. In return for Greitens’ resignation, Gardner would drop charges of computer tampering connected with a campaign finance law violation. Greitens was accused of using the list of donors to his charity, The Mission Continues, to raise money for his campaign for governor.
Now, Temple believes Greitens is working on a new book about what he’s learned. “He’s probably got a first draft of ‘The Eric Greitens’ redemption’,” Temple said.
DARK MONEY SOURCES?
Greitens’ resignation, effective at 5 p.m. on June 1, came as a Special Investigations Committee of the Missouri House was collecting testimony that could lead to his impeachment. Hours before Greitens announced his resignation, the committee had spent the day listening to the testimony of Michael Hafner, a former Greitens’ campaign staffer. Among other things, Hafner had testified about contributions that came from foreign donors, a potential campaign violation.
Also that day, a Cole County judge ruled that Greitens’ legal team had to surrender documents sought by a subpoena from the committee probing the activities of A New Missouri, Inc., a ‘dark money’ nonprofit Greitens and his supporters used to pay to advance his political agenda. Ever since Greitens was elected there have been unanswered questions about the sources of millions of dollars in campaign funds.
After Greitens’ resignation announcement, previously scheduled hearings of the investigations committee were cancelled. But Sen. Gina Walsh, a Democrat from North St. Louis County, said the probe should continue.
“Innocent people don’t resign and criminals don’t get let off the hook simply because they cut and run,” Walsh said in a prepared statement. “Missourians deserve to know what laws were broken, what lies were told, and how deep the corruption went.”
Greitens’ demeanor often made it seem like he had something to hide. He used an application on his cell phone that erased information after texts were made. A combination lock barred entry to the door of his pressroom office. Inquiries by reporters were ignored or rebuffed by his official spokesman.
John Hancock, the former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, said Greitens’ method with the press mirrored his dealings with many lawmakers. When his troubles began, the night of the “state of the state” address and he was forced to admit an extra-marital affair, Greitens never provided a complete explanation of what had happened.
“There is a reason why every corporation in America has a media relations department, and that is because if you are going to be engaged in commerce you need to be engaged in media relations. One of the mistakes of the Greitens’ approach in the campaign and in the office has been a lack of any sort of media relations effort.”
Greitens’ behavior reflected that of someone who was guilty of what he was accused.
Hancock now hopes the Missouri Republican party has an opportunity to heal under Mike Parson, a farmer, a former state senator and lieutenant governor who will become governor upon Greitens’ departure.
“Of all the people who can step into the Governor’s Mansion, who has the best chance of healing the party and uniting the state, Mike Parson is may singularly qualified to do that,” Hancock said. “The party and state is fortunate to have Parson at this difficult and unfortunate time.”
DID THE PRESS DO ITS JOB?
If Eric Greitens wasn’t the honorable man he seemed to be, did the news media do its job before he was elected? Were citizens given adequate warnings about him?
As a matter of fact, they were, so long as they were readers who had been paying attention. Stories gave accounts of the shadow of dark money on Eric Greitens’ campaign before the election, but they didn’t get prominent display nor prompt vigorous discussion.
On Oct. 10, 2016, almost a month before the general election, David Lieb of the Associated Press reported that Greitens’ campaign had collected nearly $2 million from The Mission Continues donors. Greitens denied that his behavior was a potential violation of federal law. Lieb’s story appeared at the top of page 5 in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, under the headline “Greitens taps charity donors for campaign funds.”
Then on Oct. 18, Kurt Erickson of the Post-Dispatch reported Greitens’ campaign had received the largest secret donation in state political history–nearly $2 million that was never traced to an identifiable source other than an entity called SEALs for Truth. A spokesman for the campaign of Greitens’ opponent, Attorney General Chris Koster, said, “Eric Greitens lied to the people of Missouri. He is running a campaign with no regard for ethics or integrity.”
Reporter Kevin McDermott’s pre-election profile of Greitens that began on the front page of the Post-Dispatch on Oct. 23, 2016 reported that Greitens “has made ethics reform a centerpiece of his campaign while collecting the single biggest dark money donation in Missouri history.”
While other candidates disclosed their income taxes, Greitens, like Republican Donald Trump, refused to do so, and still the voters elected them. It was as if they were immunized to criticism. Instead, voters chose for governor the man whose campaign commercials showed him shooting a machine-gun and blowing things up.
Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that within the context of the 2016 election, it was going to be difficult for accusations in the governor’s race to get a lot of attention.
“There were so many accusations going back and forth in the presidential campaign, some of this stuff got buried,” Robertson said. “In the context of 2016, I’m not sure the press could have done a lot more to get the public’s attention on the Missouri governor’s race.
“Greitens was a little bit of an unknown for an awful lot of people,” Robertson added. “He was a smile, an ammunition campaign ad and conservative positions on issues that he stated. There were a lot of interviews where he didn’t say much to help people to understand him.”
Sex sells, and the allegations surrounding his affair with a woman created more attention than Greitens’ campaign law problems, although the campaign violations might be more serious. Now, with the charges being dropped and an investigating committee concluding its work, Missourians may never know the sources of the millions of dollars that pushed Greitens to victory and which he later used in attempts to squash his enemies. People may never find out who was behind the $100,000 that was paid to a lawyer for the husband of the woman who had been involved with Greitens in an extramarital affair.
If that happens, Robertson said, “It’s going to make a cynical public more cynical. People are already feeling that billionaires and millionaires are secretly channeling money to increase their profit margins. That’s a common view.
“It delegitimizes American government, and when we do that we are delegitimizing the American republic that most people have sworn allegiance to,” Robertson said. “The people have to be in charge, and I think the American people are very cynical about whether they are in charge, given what’s going on now. I’m very troubled by the drift of politics.”
In recent years, politics in Missouri has seemed to be “beyond the Sabbath,” a no-holds-barred, winner-take-all system characterized by unlimited campaign contributions, secret donations, lobbyists’ gifts and a revolving-door system in which lawmakers become political consultants. Voters seem powerless to make any difference.
An initiative petition, Clean Missouri, has been filed with more than 340,000 signatures to get it on the November ballot. If approved, it would lower campaign contribution limits, eliminate lobbyists’ gifts and require lawmakers to wait two years after leaving office before they could become a lobbyist. More government records would become open under the proposal, and the process of drawing legislative district boundaries would be reformed.
Robertson has endorsed the Clean Missouri initiative, saying it would strengthen republican government, building it up from the states.
“Let’s change the system, not just office holders,” Robertson said. “Missouri voters can make a national statement when they consider the Clean Missouri initiative in November.”