Kim Gardner resigns as St. Louis circuit attorney, 2 weeks earlier than expected
Updated at 6 p.m. May 16 with comments from Gov. Mike Parson
Embattled St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner is resigning earlier than expected.
After announcing earlier this month that she would leave office on June 1, Gardner chose instead to step down Tuesday.
“The Circuit Attorney has worked with St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell and his office to ensure a comprehensive transition plan is in place to handle cases that prioritizes public safety,” read a statement from Gardner’s office. “Effective immediately, Kimberly M. Gardner will end her service as the city of St. Louis Circuit Attorney. Ms. Gardner has been committed to serving the people of the city of St. Louis and has done all she can to ensure a smooth transition.”
Speaking to reporters in St. Louis on Tuesday, Parson said he wanted to announce Gardner’s replacement by Friday. In the meantime, he said that Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey’s staff will handle the circuit attorney’s office.
“I will also tell you there has been an extremely talented pool of people who have applied for this position,” Parson said. “I’ve appreciated that people have really come out to just try to make this a better place and to fight the crime that's going on in St. Louis. So I'm looking forward to that.”
Parson was in town to attend the groundbreaking of a new child care facility. He also met with Mayor Tishaura Jones to discuss potential successors.
“The Mayor and Governor agreed that restoring faith in this office is critical to a functional criminal justice system,” Jones said in a statement.
She also reemphasized that the replacement should serve as a caretaker for the office “who can make much-needed changes without the distraction of reelection politics in 2024.”
Bailey said Deputy Attorney General Bill Corrigan, a former St. Louis County judge, and his team were sent to the circuit attorney’s office “to immediately receive referrals from police and start the process of clearing the backlog of cases until the Governor appoints the newest Circuit Attorney."
Corrigan has been leading Bailey’s effort to oust Gardner, which is now expected to be dismissed.
Gardner’s unexpected resignation initially caused confusion over who was in charge of the office.
A spokesman for Bell, Chris King, told reporters that prosecutors from his office had been in the circuit attorney’s office Monday and Tuesday learning the procedures needed to file cases. He had hoped to get the warrant office, which has been run using an email inbox since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, open as soon as possible.
“We’re here. We’re ready to work. But we’re not sure what our legal standing is,” he said. “It’s kind of put us in a gray area."
Parson said that while Bell was among the local prosecutors he had talked to about providing resources, he was unaware Bell had been asked to play any official role.
Bell and five other prosecutors from the Missouri side of the St. Louis region said in a statementthey stood ready to help in any way if asked by the governor or the attorney general.
An abrupt departure
Gardner provided no explanation for her abrupt departure from the office. But her
decision to leave earlier came a day after Bailey’s office filed documents showing that Gardner was spotted leaving Family Health Centers during daytime work hours, potentially providing evidence she was working toward a graduate degree in nursing during a contempt hearing for her office.
Supporters of Gardner, like Zaki Baruti, called her resignation a “political lynching” and the end of an attack that began when she prosecuted then-Gov. Eric Greitens for invasion of privacy.
“It stems from her progressive agenda for our community, as well as her position that everyone falls under the law,” Baruti said.
Gardner’s perceived failure to do her job was at the center of Bailey’s efforts to remove her from office through a procedure known as quo warranto. But at a previously scheduled hearing on Tuesday, the state and attorneys for Gardner seemed to be in agreement that the resignation made the matter moot. Judge Thomas Chapman agreed to wait to rule on a motion to dismiss until it was clear who was in charge, but he paused all discovery such as depositions and subpoena deadlines indefinitely.
"The Circuit Attorney has finally heeded my call to resign after undermining the rule of law for years. Today, we begin the process of restoring public safety to the City of St. Louis,” Bailey said.
The fate of a contempt charge against Gardner, however, remains unclear. The special prosecutor assigned to that case, Allison Schreiber Lee, could not immediately be reached for comment. But on Tuesday, she filed court documents indicating that she was also interested in records that could show Gardner was doing work toward a graduate nursing degree during that hearing that led to the contempt finding.
Parson wouldn’t say on Tuesday if he would appoint a Democrat to replace Gardner. Some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expect the GOP chief executive to cross party lines, since the city is heavily Democratic and a Republican appointee would likely lose in November 2024.
“That's not going to be a factor for me,” Parson said. “So it's not going to be a political appointee, whether they're Republican or Democrat. It's about who I think will go in there and do the best job to right this ship in the city of St. Louis. And do they have the heart in the right place to really put St. Louis people first? And I think that's one of the things that we'll look at.”
He also said he wouldn’t necessarily pick someone based on whether they’ll run for a full term in 2024.
“My whole emphasis on picking this person has nothing to do with the next election,” Parson said. “Because that's where the people of this city will have the ability to pick that person."
The rumored possibilities include St. Louis Judge Michael Noble, who made news earlier when he dubbed Gardner’s office a “rudderless ship of chaos” during a contempt hearing.
Other potential replacements include defense attorney David Mueller, former Alderman Michael Gras, former Assistant Circuit Attorney Patrick Hamacher, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ashley Walker and state Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis.