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Under new management: The St. Louis circuit attorney’s office without Gardner

The entrance to the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The entrance to the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office on Tuesday at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

The temporary structure of the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office is starting to take shape, a day after Kim Gardner’s abrupt resignation.

Gov. Mike Parson is expected to appoint a successor to Gardner later this week. Until then, Evan Rodriguez will run the circuit attorney’s office on a temporary basis. Rodriguez, who received his law degree from the University of Kansas in 2019, has been Parson’s general counsel, a role once held by Attorney General Andrew Bailey.

A piece of lined yellow paper from the 22nd Circuit. On it is written, "Comes now Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner of the city of St. Louis (asking) the court to appoint St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell in the interim to act as the transition manager for the circuit attorney's office exercising all powers granted the circuit attorney in Chapter 56 RSMO."
22nd Judicial Circuit
A memo obtained through a records request shows Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner hoped to have Wesley Bell serve in a transition role with all the powers legally given to her office.

Gardner stepped down Tuesday, more than two weeks ahead of a previously announced date of June 1. In an email to Parson, she said she had been working with her counterpart in St. Louis County, Wesley Bell, to ensure a smooth transition and wrote a document for a judge to sign naming Bell as a “transition manager” exercising “all powers granted the circuit attorney” under state law.

But Gardner had no authority to give Bell the metaphorical keys to her office – vacancies are filled by the governor. That left Bell’s staff in what his spokesman called a “gray area.”

Bell’s spokesman, Christopher King, said Wednesday that Bell’s office was “just waiting to be asked for help.” Prosecutors from across Missouri have pledged to lend assistance if asked by the governor.

The state Association of Prosecuting Attorneys added in a statement that its members “care deeply about victims of crime and public safety in St. Louis.”

Bailey said on Tuesday that he had assigned one of his assistants, Bill Corrigan, to begin addressing the backlog of cases and reopen the warrant office, where police seek charges in criminal cases. That office moved to virtual operations at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a lack of staffing meant it never fully reopened.

The business of the criminal legal system in St. Louis continued Wednesday, with online court records showing at least seven cases filed as of 3:15 p.m.

Ouster, contempt cases dismissed

Gardner’s potential legal issues ended Wednesday with the dismissal of both a pending contempt case and an effort by Bailey to force her from office.

The dismissal of the quo warranto proceeding was not a surprise, as both sides had indicated in a hearing on Tuesday that Gardner’s resignation made the ouster attempt moot.

STLPR's Rachel Lippmann discusses this story on 'St. Louis on the Air'

But the contempt case appeared to be moving forward as of Tuesday, with the special prosecutor requesting records that could have shown Gardner was getting clinical hours for an advanced nursing degree during working hours.

That special prosecutor, Allison Schreiber Lee, wrote that it “no longer serves the interest of justice to continue with this matter, as the defendant is no longer employed as the circuit attorney.”

Lee also asked a judge to dismiss the contempt charges against a former assistant of Gardner’s, Christopher Desilets, for the same reason. Desilets resigned earlier this month.

His attorney, David Bruns, called it a “fair” outcome.

“He never meant any disrespect to the judge,” Bruns said of his client. “He was just caught in a terrible situation.”

An attorney for Gardner did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.