JEFFERSON CITY — Propelled by the resolution of a nearly 2-year-old ethics complaint, former Gov. Eric Greitens spent big this year on efforts to rehabilitate his public image.
The ex-governor resigned under pressure in June 2018 after 17 months in office. He spent thousands of dollars in 2020 on public relations efforts, launched an internet show in which he casts himself as an alternative to “mainstream” news outlets, and began making media appearances.
It is still unclear whether Greitens, 46, long defined by his ambition, will run again for public office.
But his spending shows the former governor — who in office and on the campaign trail was laser-focused on his brand as a Navy SEAL, family man and “conservative outsider” — is still keenly interested in how the public perceives him, even after being out of elected office for more than two years.
This year, Greitens and former first lady Sheena Greitens announced they were ending their marriage. He also publicly donated personal protective equipment to first responders (N95 masks donated turned out to be unusable for Columbia firefighters in contact with COVID-19 patients), and attended the visitation of a St. Louis police officer killed on duty, speaking outside to television reporters.
He also responded to a shooting near St. Louis University in July, rendering first aid to two victims before paramedics arrived. The men died of their injuries. Greitens told KTVI (Channel 2) he was eating dinner with a friend nearby when he heard 20 to 25 gunshots.
As of this month, Greitens was still a member of the Navy’s Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron 10, based in Bridgeton, according to Navy documents.
Neither the Navy nor the SEALs wanted Greitens to return to duty, after his ex-lover testified he groped and hit her, but the former governor returned anyway after pressure from Vice President Mike Pence, the Kansas City Star reported in July, citing documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Missouri Republicans have been speculating as to whether incumbent U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, intends to run for reelection in 2022. A spokeswoman for Blunt’s Senate office did not respond Monday to a request for comment, but said Tuesday after this story was published online that Blunt was “planning to” run again.
If Blunt were to retire, Greitens could have an opening to run as an outsider candidate against a potentially crowded field of other well-known GOP figures, such as Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who has attempted to cultivate a national profile recently with moves to sue China and challenge the 2020 election results.
“Everybody loves to talk about him — especially the Democrats,” former state Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, a Greitens ally, said of the former governor. “The media loves to talk about him. People love to hate him, love to keep talking about him, but no, I don’t think that there’s — I don’t think there’s any possibility that he runs for office.”
Lamping said Greitens’ best chance at returning to elected office was the 2020 governor’s race. But the former senator said it would have been extremely difficult for Greitens to make his case during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said Gov. Mike Parson ran a good campaign, without making massive mistakes that would have allowed Greitens to position himself as an alternative.
“His best shot was to come right back (and run for governor in 2020) and prove that he was deserving and was unfairly handled,” Lamping said. “Nobody was able to prosecute anything in a campaign in 2020.”
Among other scandals, Greitens exited state government fending off allegations that he threatened his former lover with a compromising photograph, that he stole a donor list from a veterans charity he founded, and that he destroyed public records by using a phone app that automatically deleted text messages.
The Missouri Ethics Commission fined Greitens’ campaign $178,000 in February, saying it neglected to report dark-money aid during his 2016 run, and that he should have reported polling data his campaign received from A New Missouri, the dark-money group once used to boost Greitens’ brand.
Ethics regulators said they possessed no evidence that Greitens personally knew of the offenses his campaign committed, and noted that his campaign paid attorneys more than $500,000 to defend the former governor in closed-door proceedings.
Greitens claimed “exoneration” after the ethics commission released its findings on Feb. 13.
But the ethics commission doesn’t possess the power to exonerate someone, and in a joint stipulation Greitens signed, he agreed to facts the commission laid out, including that candidates bear ultimate responsibility for campaign reporting violations.
On Feb. 15, his campaign purchased a Facebook ad saying, in part, “we’ve been fully exonerated.”
The ad doesn’t make clear what the “exoneration” applied to — the compromising photograph? The stolen charity list? — but implies falsely that the ethics commission cleared him of all alleged breaches of which he had been accused.
The ad preceded additional advertisements through the spring and summer.
The first ad, which cost between $5,000 and $6,000 to run, was shown exclusively in Missouri, according to the Facebook Ad library. The ad was viewed between 450,000 and 500,000 times before it went inactive.
Though he wasn’t running for anything, Greitens this year paid a Washington, D.C.-area public relations firm $10,000 from his campaign account, and paid Facebook $34,672 for advertising, according to Missouri Ethics Commission records.
He also paid a campaign worker, Dylan Johnson, $34,351 in compensation and expense reimbursements, according to the records.
The public relations firm, JK Public Relations, sent a memo in May to KMOX (1120-AM) pitching Greitens as a guest, according to a copy obtained by the Post-Dispatch.
The memo claims that “Greitens was fully exonerated after a false prosecution,” referring to felony charges, connected to the alleged compromising photograph, that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner dropped against Greitens as he left office.
This year, he also paid $30,000 to a second firm, Washington, D.C.-based Driver Eight Media, which, according to its website, focuses on “booking clients for high profile interviews on broadcast and cable television.”
Greitens’ allies this year teased him as a candidate for governor.
Greitens never clarified whether he would run, leaving state politicos guessing until this year’s candidate filing deadline, on March 31.
He did publish a video in August portraying Parson as a puppet for low-income housing tax credit interests.
Greitens in late 2017 engineered a freeze to the lucrative tax credit program for developers, frustrating those same interests. He later blamed the industry for manufacturing the scandal that led to his downfall.
A recent poll by Missouri Scout pitted Greitens against Blunt in a hypothetical GOP primary in 2022, with likely GOP primary voters favoring Blunt by a 43%-to-32% margin. Twenty-five percent of respondents were undecided.
While Greitens used much of what was left of his state campaign fund to pay for his public relations blitz, he won’t be able to use that same pot if he chooses to run for Senate in 2022. That would require him to raise money through the Federal Election Commission.
At the end of September, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission, Greitens had $267,000 in his campaign coffers, down from $2.8 million at the end of 2017, before news broke of his extramarital affair.
“He’s doing kind of the alt-media circuit,” Lamping said. “I just think he rebranded himself.
“Maybe (the) New Year’s resolution is that you guys will stop writing about him, because there’s nothing to write about.”
Jack Suntrup • 573-556-6186 @JackSuntrup on Twitter firstname.lastname@example.org