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Greitens blames low-income housing program backers for legal, political troubles

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens speaks Thursday in Jefferson City to a group of mostly farmers and students about what he called "rip-off" artists who were out to get him.May 17, 2018
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens speaks Thursday in Jefferson City to a group of mostly farmers and students about what he called "rip-off artists" who were out to get him.

Standing in a light rain in the shadow of the state Capitol, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens blamed “rip-off artists” in the state’s low-income housing program “who thought they ran Missouri” for many of his legal troubles and the threat of his impeachment.

But recalling his past as a Navy SEAL, Greitens declared Thursday that they won’t succeed because he was taught to never quit.

“No matter how painful they try to make it. No matter how much suffering they want to put me and my family through,” the governor said.

His audience was a crowd of mostly farmers and students gathered in the Carnahan Gardens, situated just outside the governor’s residence. The event was to highlight his decision to release $4 million in state money to help the rural-based alternative fuel industry.

But Greitens swiftly segued into an off-the-cuff bashing of his political enemies.

“When you take a common sense conservative approach to government, you can’t always make everyone happy,’’ the governor said. “And that’s OK.”

Among the “angriest,’’ he said, were people and businesses involved in the low-income housing industry. He asserted they “had a little scheme going’’ where they built housing that cost too much, and then stuck the state indirectly for some of the cost, through Missouri’s low-income housing tax credit program.

Until Greitens froze the program in December, he said the state was issuing credits totaling about $130 million a year.

Greitens implied that the industry was helping to bankroll those now trying to drive him from office.

“For the rip-off artists, it was working really well for them,” he said, “And here in Missouri, we’ve got a word for that. It’s called a scam.”

He took no questions from reporters.

Gov. Eric Greitens mingles with a friendly crowd Thursday in Jefferson City. May 17, 2018
Credit Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Eric Greitens mingles with a friendly crowd Thursday in Jefferson City.

Stephen Acree, head of RISE, a St. Louis-based nonprofit firm involved in low-income housing, said he was offended by Greitens’ attack.

“We deplore the politicization of this worthy program; we work with people on both sides of the aisle who strive to make this program successful,” Acree said in a statement late Thursday. “We urge that the legislature explore ways to reduce the impact of politics on this program and pledge to support efforts that do so. “

The Missouri House plans to formally convene on Friday a special session to look into allegations of  personal and professional misconduct by Greitens. If the House decides there are grounds for impeachment, the matter will be put in the hands of a special board of judges selected by the Senate.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has dropped, for now, an effort to prosecute the governor over allegations he took a semi-nude photo of  a woman with whom he was having an affair without her consent.

Greitens has admitted the affair, but denied any illegal activity.

He was elected governor in November 2016 after a campaign in which he highlighted his image as a former SEAL and devoted husband with two young sons.

Greitens also faces charges of improperly using the donor list of the charity he had founded in 2007, The Mission Continues, for his political campaign.

Greitens is accused of lying about the list in a consent order he signed in April 2017 with the Missouri Ethics Commission. In the order, he acknowledged using the list for political purposes but implied that it had been obtained by his campaign manager at the time. That former aide has said Greitens was responsible.

In Thursday’s remarks, Greitens contended that his chief offense – from his political enemies’ perspective – was in trying to revamp state government. He repeated what he viewed his successes in cutting state costs by selling off planes and cars, and in trimming regulations.

Greitens contended that his administration has cut more than 30,000 regulations so far, although he did not provide details.

Greitens made no mention of the controversies involving his use of non-profit groups to raise millions of dollars from unidentified donors. Some of that money has been used in ads to attack fellow Republicans in the General Assembly who have disagreed with the governor on various policy matters, including the low-income housing program.

Greitens laced his speech with recollections of his days as a Navy SEAL. That record also is under scrutiny. The New Yorker magazine released this week an article that raises questions about his military service and his promotion of his past as a SEAL.

Watkins speaks out on cash payments

Both detractors and supporters of Greitens have long suspected the revelation in January of his affair was linked to his decision to end state low-income housing tax credits.

Attorney Al Watkins speaks with reporters outside the Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis following a hearing. March 26, 2018.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Attorney Al Watkins speaks with reporters outside the Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis following a hearing on March 26, 2018.

Al Watkins, who represented the ex-husband who exposed the affair on KMOV, has said he started getting a wave of media inquiries about the situation around the time Greitens froze the tax credit. And Missouri Times publisher Scott Faughn delivered tens of thousands of dollars to Watkins before the KMOV story came out.

Faughn has deep ties to people associated with low-income housing tax credits. For instance: Sterling Bank, which is involved with low-income housing tax credits, is a sponsor for Faughn’s television program. And the Missouri Times has run critical articles of Greitens’ decision to halt the state tax credit.

In an interview on Thursday, Watkins said Faughn “made it really clear that there was a wealthy, Republican donor who had an ax to grind with the governor. And he described it as being ‘personal.’” Faughn has said previously that it was his money that he gave to Watkins.

“All I cared about was it was not drug money and it was not money that was derived from some illegal scheme and artifice,” Watkins said.

Watkins has previously said the money arrived after the ex-husband conducted interviews with the Post-Dispatch and KMOV. Faughn has said that he was trying to acquire tapes in order to write a book. Watkins emphasized that the money was presented to him without conditions. He also said he was willing to give Faughn a copy of the tape, but added that he made him sign a confidentiality agreement because he had made commitments to other media outlets about releasing information.

Faughn did not reply to a request to respond to Watkins.

Ultimately, though, Watkins doesn’t believe it matters if the money came from an interest group that sought to remove Greitens from office. He also said that the governor is responsible for his own behavior, adding that it didn’t affect what he did for his client.

“Do I care, in my case or in this situation, whether the money came from the Church of Satan or from some other special interest group whose agenda may have been parallel with ultimately what I was doing?” he said. “That’s fine. I don’t care.”

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.