Updated January 11 at 4:20 p.m. with Gardner investigation — Missouri House and Senate Republican leaders issued almost identical statements of concern Thursday as they otherwise declined comment on the sex scandal swirling around Gov. Eric Greitens.
Using the bad weather as an excuse, most lawmakers fled the state Capitol, and both chambers adjourned swiftly until next Tuesday.
However, a bipartisan group of senators – all frequent critics of the governor – announced they were sending a letter asking state Attorney General Josh Hawley to investigate the matter.
“Under Missouri law, jurisdiction over alleged criminal conduct of this nature rests with the Prosecuting Attorney in the place where the conduct occurred," Hawley's deputy chief of staff, Loree Ann Paradise, said in a statement. "If the Prosecuting Attorney has a legal conflict or lacks the resources to pursue an investigation, he or she may seek assistance from the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the Attorney General’s Office.”
Late Thursday afternoon, the prosecutor in St. Louis, circuit attorney Kim Gardner, announced that she would open an investigation into the alleged blackmail.
"The serious allegations against Missouri Governor Eric Greitens are very troubling," Gardner said in a statement. "It is essential for residents of the City of St. Louis and our state to have confidence in their leaders. They must know that the Office of the Circuit Attorney will hold public officials accountable in the same manner as any other resident of our city. Both parties and the people of St. Louis deserve a thorough investigation of these allegations."
Late Wednesday, just hours after Greitens delivered his second State of the State address, he acknowledged that he was involved in an extra-marital affair before he launched his campaign for governor in the fall of 2015. He has denied all other allegations, including those of blackmail.
Greitens and his wife, Sheena Greitens, issued joint statements through their lawyer after St. Louis television station KMOV-TV (Channel 4) reported on the matter.
The lawyer, James Bennett, issued a new statement Thursday saying that the governor has no plans to resign.
House Republicans caucused privately Thursday morning before going into session at 10 a.m. – and adjourning within minutes until Tuesday. By 10:30 a.m., much of the state Capitol was empty. The state Senate also adjourned early, officially blaming weather forecasts of freezing rain and snow. Privately, many lawmakers and GOP leaders were still digesting the late-breaking news that had exploded hours after they had applauded the governor's tax-cut proposal.
On its 10 p.m. Wednesday broadcast, KMOV featured an anonymous interview with the ex-husband of the St. Louis area woman involved. She was married at the time of the affair, as was Greitens.
“A few years ago, before Eric was elected governor, there was a time when he was unfaithful in our marriage,’’ Greitens’ statement said. “It was a deeply personal mistake.”
“Eric took responsibility, and we dealt with this honestly and privately,” the statement continued. “While we would have never wished for this pain in our marriage, or the pain that this has caused others, with God’s mercy, Sheena has forgiven and we have emerged stronger.
“We understand that there will be some people who will not forgive,’’ the statement concluded. “But for those who can find it in your heart, Eric asks for your forgiveness, and we are grateful for your love, your compassion and your prayers.”
In a separate note, Sheena Greitens added, “We have a loving marriage and an awesome family, anything beyond that is between us and God. I want the media and those who wish to peddle gossip to stay away from me and my children.”
The TV report included allegations that Gov. Greitens threatened to blackmail the woman, to keep the affair secret. Bennett, his lawyer, issued a statement late Wednesday disputing KMOV's account.
"The governor has now seen the TV report that ran tonight. The station declined to provide the tape or transcript in advance of running their story, which contained multiple false allegations," Bennett said. "The claim that this nearly three-year old story has generated or should generate law enforcement interest is completely false. There was no blackmail and that claim is false. This personal matter has been addressed by the governor and Mrs. Greitens privately years ago when it happened. The outrageous claims of improper conduct regarding these almost three-year-ago events are false."
On Thursday, Bennett issued an additional statement that offered more detail:
"The governor denies that the picture was taken and denies stating the words attributed to him by her on the recording.
"Any allegation of violence is completely false. It never happened. There was never any violence," the statement added. "Anything reported otherwise is untrue and we will explore pursuing all legal action. This was a consensual relationship that lasted multiple months and was years ago before Eric was elected governor."
"The governor is in no way considering resigning," Bennett added. "This is a long-ago private issue that was fully addressed by the Greitens years ago.
Whatever happens in the Capitol, the matter could affect Greitens’ national aspirations. His GOP campaign for governor in 2016 promoted, in part, his character and his belief in family values. Most of his speeches have cited his status as "a husband and a father."
Capitol reaction guarded
Thursday morning, legislators demurred in the halls, generally devoting their on-the-record comments to the weather. Privately, several expressed concern about the governor’s admitted affair – and the more salacious behavior that he denies – but said they would wait to see what happens in the coming days before making judgment.
One of the few exceptions was state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, who posted a comment on Twitter Thursday calling for Greitens to resign. She is among the bipartisan group of senators asking for the attorney general to investigate. The others include two Republicans -- Doug Libla of Poplar Bluff and Gary Romine of Farmington -- who have been critical of Greitens' actions on other issues.
The Senate GOP leadership – headed by President Pro Tem Ron Richard of Joplin – issued a joint statement Thursday morning regarding his affair: “Like many Missourians, we find these serious allegations shocking and concerning. As this situation is evolving, we expect the governor to be honest and forthright.”
Senate Democratic leaders – Gina Walsh of Bellefontaine Neighbors and Kiki Curls of Kansas City – were harsher.
“In light of the very serious allegations made against the governor, there are many questions still left unanswered,” the two senators said. “But let’s be clear – violence and threats against women are never acceptable. Allegations of extortion, coercion, or threats of violence must be investigated by the proper authorities. People accused of these egregious acts do not get to waive off the scrutiny of law enforcement simply because they are in a position of power; and victims of these crimes deserve our full support.”
On the House side, Speaker Todd Richardson and other GOP leaders issued a joint statement similar to that of their Senate counterparts: “While the details of the story continue to emerge, the allegations made against the governor last night are deeply concerning. The governor must be forthright and accountable for his actions.”
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