JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, a sometimes brash political outsider whose unconventional resume as a Rhodes scholar and Navy SEAL officer made him a rising star in the Republican Party, resigned Tuesday amid a widening investigation that arose from an affair with his former hairdresser.
The 44-year-old governor spent nearly six months fighting to stay in office after the affair became public in January in a television news report that aired immediately following his State of the State address. The probes into his conduct by prosecutors and lawmakers began with allegations stemming from the affair and expanded to include questions about whether he violated campaign-finance laws.
Greitens said his resignation would take effect Friday.
“This ordeal has been designed to cause an incredible amount of strain on my family – millions of dollars of mounting legal bills, endless personal attacks designed to cause maximum damage to family and friends,” he said in a brief statement from his Jefferson City office, his voice breaking at times.
He said he could not “allow those forces to continue to cause pain and difficulty to the people that I love.”
Lawmakers pressuring Greitens to step down included many Republicans, who feared that his troubles could jeopardize the GOP’s chances of defeating incumbent Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill in a race considered essential to the party’s hopes of keeping control of the Senate.
The local St. Louis prosecutor’s office said it had reached a “fair and just resolution” on criminal charges against Greitens now that he’s leaving office. But the prosecutor said details would not be made public until Wednesday.
A St. Louis grand jury indicted Greitens on Feb. 22 on one felony count of invasion of privacy for allegedly taking and transmitting a photo of the woman without her consent at his home in 2015, before he was elected governor. The charge was dismissed during jury selection, but a special prosecutor from Kansas City is considering whether to refile charges and said Tuesday that her investigation is ongoing.
In April, the St. Louis prosecutor, Kim Gardner, charged Greitens with another felony, alleging that he improperly used the donor list for a charity that he had founded to raise money for his 2016 campaign.
Then less than two weeks ago, the Missouri Legislature began meeting in special session to consider whether to pursue impeachment proceedings to try to oust Greitens from office. A special House investigative committee had subpoenaed Greitens to testify next Monday.
Two people with close ties to Republican officials in Washington and Missouri told The Associated Press there was no coordinated effort to push Greitens out.
The governor’s brashness had alienated some GOP legislators even before his affair became public. Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law said the resignation could help unify Missouri Republicans and free up money.
In January, the woman’s ex-husband released a secretly recorded conversation from 2015 in which she described the affair, which happened shortly after Greitens created an exploratory committee to run for office. The woman later told the House committee that Greitens restrained, slapped, shoved and threatened her during a series of sexual encounters that at times left her crying and afraid.
Greitens said the allegations amounted to a “political witch hunt” and vowed to stay in office. But a report from the House committee created a firestorm, with both Republicans and Democrats calling for his resignation.
Even while resigning, Greitens remained defiant.
“I am not perfect. But I have not broken any laws or committed any offense worthy of this treatment,” he said. “I will let the fairness of this process be judged by history.”
His departure will elevate fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Parson – a former state lawmaker and sheriff – to the governor’s office.
Parson, who will serve the remainder of Greitens’ term through January 2020, pledged to carry out his new duties “with honor and integrity.” He said Greitens’ resignation “will allow our state to heal and move forward from what has been a difficult time.”
The Greitens administration was thrown into chaos the night of Jan. 10, when a St. Louis TV station aired a report about Greitens allegedly taking the compromising photo and threatening to blackmail the woman if she ever spoke of their encounter.
The governor admitted to having an affair but denied any criminal wrongdoing. He said the criminal case was politically motivated and called Gardner, a Democrat, a “reckless liberal prosecutor.”
The House authorized the legislative investigation a week after the indictment.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley also launched an inquiry into a veterans’ charity Greitens founded. Federal law bars 501(c)(3) charities such as The Mission Continues from intervening in political campaigns on behalf of candidates.
The Associated Press first reported in October 2016 that Greitens’ campaign had obtained a list of individuals, corporations and other nonprofits that had given at least $1,000 to The Mission Continues. The AP reported that Greitens raised about $2 million from those who had previously given significant amounts to the charity.
Hawley, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, turned evidence over to Gardner, saying April 17 that he believed Greitens had broken the law. Her office charged him with tampering with computer data for allegedly disclosing the donor list without the charity’s permission.
A May 2 report from the House investigative committee indicated that Greitens himself received the donor list and later directed aides to work off it to raise money for his gubernatorial campaign. Former campaign aide Danny Laub testified that he was duped into taking the fall when the campaign tried to explain how it had gotten the list.
Earlier Tuesday, the House panel had heard a second round of testimony from Greitens campaign aide Michael Hafner, who said Greitens had instructed him to use the charity donor list for political fundraising.
The invasion-of-privacy indictment alleged that on March 21, 2015, Greitens photographed the woman and transmitted the photo “in a manner that allowed access to that image via a computer.”
During her testimony to the House committee, the woman said Greitens invited her to his home and offered to show her “how to do a proper pull-up.” The woman said she initially thought “this is going to be some sort of sexy workout.”
But once in his basement, Greitens taped her hands to pull-up rings, blindfolded her, and started kissing and disrobing her without her consent, according to her testimony.
Then she saw a flash and heard a click, like a cellphone camera, she said. The woman testified that Greitens told her: “Don’t even mention my name to anybody at all, because if you do, I’m going to take these pictures, and I’m going to put them everywhere I can. They are going to be everywhere, and then everyone will know what a little whore you are.”
Greitens, a married father of two young boys, repeatedly denied blackmailing the woman. He declined to say whether he took a photo, and prosecutors acknowledged in court that they had not found a photo.
The governor, who also served as a White House fellow and wrote a best-selling book, won an expensive Republican primary in 2016, then defeated Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster in the general election to give Republicans control of the governor’s mansion for the first time in eight years. Some considered him a potential future presidential contender.