Gardner under fire for taking SLU nursing classes while office faces turmoil
Updated at 6:15 p.m. May 3 with comments from Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner is facing new criticism — this time for taking nursing classes at St. Louis University while her office is in turmoil.
The news, first reported by the Riverfront Times, could provide evidence that Gardner is willfully neglecting her duties in office — the standard that Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey needs to reach to oust her from office.
“We’ve uncovered new pieces of evidence that the circuit attorney is taking nursing classes instead of fulfilling her … duties,” Bailey said at a press conference in Jefferson City on Wednesday.
Gardner has often touted her experience as a registered nurse throughout her political career, most notably during a 2016 Democratic primary for the circuit attorney’s office. It was a key aspect of her state legislative career, as she was often assigned to committees dealing with health care.
But the revelation that she’s continuing her studies comes as there have been near-daily reports of attorneys resigning from her office amid Bailey’s attempt to oust her. The GOP attorney general contends that she’s done nothing to fix a mismanaged and toxic work environment.
Bailey issued two subpoenas seeking more information about Gardner’s time at SLU.
“We have demanded documents related to her class schedule, related to the hours and participation in class, any hours she has worked at the school, surveillance footage, and relevant communications and documents between the student and the staff,” he said.
He said the news about her time at SLU brings into question whether she is following a state law requiring her to devote her full time to the office.
“Obtaining a nursing degree is not one of her official duties,” Bailey said. “Prosecuting criminals is. Yet she has consistently failed to charge new cases, inform and confer with victims, and move the cases she does charge to disposition.”
In a statement, Gardner spokeswoman Allison Hawk said Gardner “continues to stay current with classes at St. Louis University to add to her training and advance her mission" at the circuit attorney’s office.
“Circuit Attorney Gardner believes the issues in our criminal justice system often relate to our broken healthcare system. After serving as a line attorney at the Circuit Attorney’s Office and seeing firsthand the underlying issues that drive crime, she became a registered nurse,” the statement said. “The Circuit Attorney has done this at great personal cost to her time with her family and loved ones. Any suggestion that she is not fully committed to her duties as Circuit Attorney is blatantly false.”
The seriousness of Gardner taking the classes depends on how much time she’s spending on them, said Joe Dandurand, a former deputy Missouri attorney general who was involved in the last quo warranto proceeding against a sitting prosecutor. That occurred in 2009 against then-Iron County Prosecutor Jessica Sparks.
Dandurand said if Gardner is taking one or two night classes, then it may not mean very much in terms of the “willful neglect” legal standard. It’s a whole different story, he added, if she’s spending lots of time at SLU.
“Does that mean that you can't take a night class? Does that mean that you can't take a dance class? Does that mean you can’t volunteer at some community organization after hours at night? No, it doesn't mean any of those things,” Dandurand said.
He added, though, Gardner may have a perception problem for taking classes at SLU when there’s such turmoil in her office.
“Certainly the optics are terrible, and they're having the intended effect,” Dandurand said.
“There are different levels of things you might be doing outside your office,” he added. “No one expects the prosecutor, because it's a full-time job, to make it a 24-hour-a-day, no-sleep job where you don't have any kind of a different life.”
On Tuesday, Judge John Torbitzky denied most of Gardner’s motion to dismiss the quo warranto case seeking to remove her. Among other things, Torbitzky wrote that the “facts alleged in the petition also permit the reasonable inference that [Gardner] was aware of occurrences in her office and yet took no action.”
He did allow her request for a new judge. On Wednesday, the Missouri Supreme Court appointed Western District Appellate Court Judge Thomas Chapman to preside over Bailey’s efforts to oust Gardner. The case is scheduled to be heard in September.
Chapman was an elected circuit judge in northwest Missouri before Gov. Mike Parson appointed him to the appeals court in August 2018. A special judge is needed because all members of the bench in St. Louis recused themselves due to a conflict of interest.
If Bailey is successful, it’s almost certain that Gardner will appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court. But even if the high court sustains a lower-court ruling kicking her out of office, there’s nothing preventing Gardner from running for another term in 2024.
Reporter Rachel Lippmann contributed to this report.