Missouri's political landscape has been shaken by a felony charge against Republican Gov. Eric Greitens.
Charges of felony invasion of privacy were announced Thursday by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner, who has been investigating Greitens since last month's disclosure of a 2015 extramarital affair.
Greitens allegedly took a picture of his lover, who was nude and blindfolded, and then threatened to use it against her if she exposed their relationship.
With legislative leaders saying they will begin an investigation, and impeachment talk circling the Statehouse, KCUR's Erica Hunzinger spoke with Brian Ellison, host of KCUR's Statehouse Blend Missouri podcast, about how this could play out.
HUNZINGER: The governor, when this all came out right after his State of the State speech, categorically denied these blackmail allegations. Now that he's been charged, what's been the response from his camp?
ELLISON: There was a silence for a couple of hours. Then his lawyer came out and said that this was the worst, most political decision he's seen in 40 years of private practice as an attorney. The governor did finally make a statement Thursday night. As he has said before, he said he made a personal mistake but not committed a crime. He also said that this was a political decision, which he said was disappointing and misguided. He also expressed confidence that this would be "righted soon."
He said "the people of Missouri deserve better than a reckless liberal prosecutor who uses her office to score political points. He's talking there about St. Louis circuit attorney Kimberly Gardner. She's the one who brought these allegations to the grand jury. She herself is a Democratic former state representative. And so it sounds like the governor's main response is going to be to say that this is a political attack. We'll see how that works out.
HUNZINGER: Speaking of lawmakers: Some called for Greitens to step down when the allegations first came out. Now that there are charges, do you have any sense of how they're responding to this.
ELLISON: A number of Democratic lawmakers and a handful of Republicans called on the governor to resign.
But late Thursday we heard the first response we've heard along those lines from the Republican House leadership. They said, "We will carefully examine the facts contained in the indictment and answer the question as to whether or not the governor can lead our state while a felony case moves forward." They went on to say, and this is attributed to the House Speaker and the Speaker Pro Tem and the Majority Majority Floor Leader, "We will begin the process of tasking a group of legislators to investigate these serious charges."
So it sounds like as soon as next week when the General Assembly reconvenes, we could see a full-on House investigation. And of course that could lead, if at all proceeds that way, to an actual impeachment.
HUNZINGER: And if that happens, who takes over?
ELLISON: An impeachment in Missouri in some ways is similar to how it's done in other states. The House would conduct an investigation and eventually the House would have to vote to impeach the governor. That essentially is an accusation. It's like a grand jury finding that there are grounds to move forward with a trial.
But in Missouri it is not the Senate that conducts that trial. The Senate actually picks a panel of seven judges and they are the ones who conduct the trial. If five out of the seven vote to convict, then the governor is removed from office effective immediately.
HUNZINGER: And then who takes over?
ELLISON: The lieutenant governor is Mike Parson, a Republican. He has studiously avoided comment on this issue and he did that again on Twitter on Thursday night. But the lieutenant governor would immediately become governor. And Mike Parson, has a very different style of leadership then Gov. Greitens, has disagreed with him about a number of issues. So it would be a very interesting moment if that should be a possibility.
Brian Ellison is host of KCUR's Statehouse Blend Missouri podcast and reports on Missouri politics and government. Follow him on Twitter @ptsbrian.
Erica Hunzinger is the editor of Harvest Public Media and a contributor to KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @ehunzinger.