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Roberts' legal settlements over sex assault claims become issue in race

State Rep. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, won a hotly contested race for the Missouri Senate to represent a portion of the city of St. Louis.
Tim Bommel
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House Communications
Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, is facing questions in his congressional race about legal settlements with two women who accused him of sexual assault.

Two weeks ago, Missouri state Sen. Steve Roberts Jr., who is mounting a Democratic primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, released the legal settlement he’d reached with a former state official who’d publicly accused him of rape. Roberts surely hoped to get out from under the claims that had dogged him in 2017 — and which, after the recent death of his accuser, former Missouri Rep. Cora Faith Walker, increasingly became an issue for his campaign.

But Roberts’ move appeared to backfire when a second accuser, Amy Harms, released Roberts’ once-confidential settlement with her — showing Roberts’ insurance company had paid Harms $100,000 after she accused him of groping her at a bar.

Roberts claimed his insurance company had settled Harms’ claim against his will. He also suggested the settlement was vindication, since the policy expressly didn’t cover claims arising from sexual assault. If he was guilty, the argument went, the insurance carrier would have let him handle it on his own.

Booker T. Shaw, a partner at Thompson Coburn and a former Missouri appellate court judge, said there may well be truth to the idea that the insurer settled the claim without Roberts’ consent.

“They are the ones on the hook,” he observed. “If the insurance company is obligated to pay any judgment that may have happened here, it can happen [that they force a settlement].”

042722_KD_BillFreivogel_BookerTShaw_MaryAnneSedey.jpg
Jane Mather-Glass
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St. Louis Public Radio
Attorneys, from left, Bill Freivogel, Booker Shaw and Mary Anne Sedey appeared on April's Legal Roundtable.

Shaw was speaking on St. Louis on the Air’s Legal Roundtable, which dug into the claims against Roberts on Wednesday.

Attorney Mary Anne Sedey, a partner at Sedey Harper Westhoff who specializes in employment law, said that companies with insurance to cover legal claims often include a “consent to settle” policy, holding that the insurer can’t reach a settlement without their approval. But, she said, that’s not necessarily true for individual policy holders.

She said that it’s common for wealthy individuals to hold umbrella policies to protect their assets — and those differ widely. “Apparently, these policies are all over the place,” she said. “It really depends on what the policy says.”

The lawyers also noted that the confidentiality of a legal settlement does not go away with death, so Roberts would have to make a case that Walker violated the agreement in order for his release to be permissible (he has suggested she broke the agreement in social media messages and a public speaking engagement). Walker’s estate, Shaw said, could theoretically pursue a claim against Roberts, even as he could theoretically pursue one against Harms, his other accuser, for going public with her settlement.

The attorneys agreed the terms of Roberts’ settlement with Walker — which held that she could not represent herself as a victim of sexual assault without identifying a perpetrator other than Roberts — did seem highly unusual.

In that suit, Roberts originally sued Walker for defamation. She only then filed a counterclaim alleging rape, and the two parties agreed to drop the suits without money changing hands. Even so, Sedey noted, one party clearly came out ahead: “Frankly, he didn't want money from her. He just wanted her to stop talking. She stopped talking.”

Congressional candidates Greitens, Roberts find legal disputes front and center
Listen to the St. Louis on the Air Legal Roundtable

But that doesn’t mean going public with the settlement has helped his campaign. Said Bill Freivogel, an attorney and professor of journalism at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale: “I wonder whether this is working for Roberts. I mean, is this really what he wants to be talking about?"

The panel also discussed another Missouri congressional candidate’s legal dispute: the child custody case involving former Gov. Eric Greitens.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens filed an affidavit accusing her ex-husband of child abuse in an attempt to move the case from Missouri to Texas. But her ex, who is running for the Senate seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, fired back that she was working with Republican operatives to discredit him. He’s now seeking phone records from political operative Karl Rove and others in an attempt to prove a conspiracy.

Shaw said he was surprised Greitens only sought to block the release of matters related to the case after his ex-wife’s affidavit became public.

“The judge has a lot of options there. And, you know, there is a possibility of appointing a special master or the judge herself could simply take a look at the [phone] records herself,” he said. “But I think probably, the judge may be inclined to just seal everything and stop all of this circus from going on.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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