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Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’s sexual blackmail scandal, explained

Greitens stands accused of secretly photographing a woman nude and threatening to release the photos to buy her silence.

Election Day
Eric Greitens at his election night party, November 8, 2016.
Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS via Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Eric Greitens used to be one of the Republican Party’s biggest rising stars.

A Navy SEAL and Rhodes Scholar with a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a doctorate in refugee studies, he founded a nonprofit serving fellow vets. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mike Mullen called him “one of the most remarkable young men I have ever encountered.”

Greitens switched parties and successfully ran for Missouri governor as a Republican in 2016, defeating multiple established politicians along the way. The country’s second-youngest governor at 43, he was well-positioned for a future Senate run, or even a presidential bid. A profile during the gubernatorial campaign declared, “If the man has an Achilles’ heel, it’s perfection.”

But on February 22, he was indicted on a felony charge of invasion of privacy and led away by the St. Louis Sheriff’s office. The indictment, which could result in up to seven years of prison time, comes barely a month after the local CBS affiliate KMOV reported that he cheated on his wife, secretly took photos of the woman he cheated with, and attempted to blackmail the woman into silence by threatening to release the photos.

When the news broke in January, Greitens and his wife portrayed the matter as simple infidelity in a statement after the story broke, with the standard language politicians use when caught in extramarital affairs: “There was a time when he was unfaithful in our marriage. This was a deeply personal mistake … we have emerged stronger.” Greitens’s attorney, James F. Bennett, denied the blackmail claim, saying the KMOV News 4 report “contained multiple false allegations.”

But the scandal isn’t going away. It’s the first time since the national reckoning over sexual misconduct began in October that a sitting governor has been publicly accused of wrongdoing, much less charged with a sex crime. Greitens is sure to face building calls for his resignation as a trial nears and new details of his offenses continue to accumulate, even as the Missouri GOP has blamed the whole thing on … George Soros.

What Greitens allegedly did

KMOV News 4 investigative reporters Lauren Trager and John O’Sullivan based their report (a video of which you can view here) on a recording of the woman with whom Greitens had the affair, provided to the station by the woman’s ex-husband. The recording, taken in March 2015 without the woman’s knowledge, depicts her and her then-husband discussing the affair. It was made days after Greitens and the woman first had sex, according to the ex-husband.

The woman and Greitens met at a hair salon where she worked and where he was a client, according to her account on the tape. He invited her back to his house; she initially just wanted to get coffee, but he insisted on going to his place. She agreed, initially just to talk. Here’s how the woman describes the encounter:

He said: “I’ll make you feel better. I’ll make you feel good. Come downstairs. I want to show you how to do a proper pull-up.” And I knew he was being sexual and I still let him. And he used some sort of tape, I don’t what it was, and taped my hands to these rings and then put a blindfold on me … I didn’t even know. I feel like I don’t even know. I was just numb. I just stood there and didn’t (expletive) know.

Then, she says, “I saw a flash through the blindfold and he said: ‘You’re never going to mention my name, otherwise there will be pictures of me everywhere.’”

“He took a picture of my wife naked as blackmail. There is no worse person,” the ex-husband told KMOV News 4.

While he took to social media during the governor’s campaign to call Greitens a “homewrecker,” the ex-husband told News 4 that he initially didn’t want to speak out too publicly. That changed because he was “contacted by law enforcement authorities and members of the media. He says he wanted to get in front of a story he believed would come out eventually and he wants to protect his family.” His attorney Al Watkins confirmed to News 4 that he and his client have been in touch with law enforcement.

TPM’s Allegra Kirkland spoke to the ex-husband’s lawyer, and Missouri Democratic operative Roy Temple, who both reported that the ex-husband mentioned that Greitens slapped the woman before sex. The ex-husband mentioned this in his interview with KMOV, though it didn’t make the final edit.

Temple told TPM, “Before engaging in sex, Greitens asked if she had had sex with anyone since their last encounter. According to the account he gave me, she replied that she had had sex with her husband, at which time Greitens slapped her.”

The legal and political fallout

The “invasion of privacy” statute under which Greitens has been charged applies to cases where a defendant “knowingly photographs or films another person, without the person’s knowledge and consent, while the person being photographed or filmed is in a state of full or partial nudity and is in a place where one would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and the person subsequently distributes the photograph or film to another or transmits the image contained in the photograph or film in a manner that allows access to that image via a computer.”

It is a class D felony, carrying a prison sentence of up to seven years.

Beyond the criminal issues at stake, the matter is set to derail Greitens’s administration barely a year in.

Greitens was fairly popular before the scandal — 20 percent more Missourians approved than disapproved of him in polling last October — but the indictment follows more than a few major clashes during his first year in office. Greitens pushed through a law making Missouri a right-to-work state; while today the state has relatively few union members, historically its brewing industry has been heavily unionized. Opponents have successfully forced a referendum on the issue onto the 2018 ballot, suspending the law’s enforcement in the process.

More damaging were revelations that his gubernatorial campaign relied heavily on massive amounts of dark money from wealthy donors. Missouri has historically had among the laxest campaign finance laws of any state; this upcoming election will be the first one in which state candidates face any contribution limits at all. Before, anyone — individuals, corporations, unions, PACs — could give an unlimited amount to campaigns. That changed with a 2016 ballot measure that finally enacted limits, which passed 70 percent to 30 but which Greitens opposed.

But even by the state’s lax standards, Greitens stood out. During the governor’s race, he received $1.975 million in one day, and no one knows where it came from. It went from a Super PAC called SEALS for Truth to Greitens’s campaign, and to SEALS for Truth from a nonprofit called American Policy Coalition. This is an easy way to use Super PACs and nonprofits to evade donor disclosure, but it’s rarely done as brazenly as in Greitens’s case.

There’s more, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Kevin McDermott recaps in this helpful piece. Greitens was fined for not disclosing how his campaign got the donor list from his nonprofit, the Mission Continues; the Associated Press found that the campaign raised nearly $2 million from the Mission Continues donors, despite Greitens’s denials that he used the group’s list to fundraise.

He has also refused to release his individual tax returns; the amounts that companies, wealth individuals, and lobbyists donated to his inauguration parties; and the funders of A New Missouri, a nonprofit he founded as governor to promote his agenda.

The inauguration issue took on new prominence after his administration offered a no-bid contract to one of the inauguration donors. It’s hard to evaluate if there was a quid pro quo involved, because no one knows how much the firm actually gave Greitens; he refuses to disclose the numbers. Members of the Missouri legislature introduced bills attempting to demand disclosure from secretive nonprofits like A New Missouri after it aired an attack ad against State Sen. Rob Schaaf, a Republican critic of Greitens, and displayed Schaaf’s personal cellphone number for viewers to call.

Greitens has defended his conduct by comparing dark money to the secret ballot: “The people who believe in voter intimidation believe that the minute you make a political donation, that you immediately need to turn all your information over to the government. … When people go in and they vote, nobody calls that dark voting.”

All that wasn’t enough to send Greitens’s approval rating underwater. But an indictment for sexual blackmail and assault should be.

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