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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL281.PRB - The Distractions of Sex
While the sex scandal of Eric Greitens dominated public and legislative attention, it actually was a quite different issue that led to his resignation.
His plea bargain in which he offered to give up his office if droppwed was the felony criminal charge that essentially involved stealing a non-profit's list of donors for his political campaign.
But it was the charge of non-consensual behavior in the affair with his mistress that came first and prompted creation of the House impeachment committee.
It was only later that the committee expanded its focus to include the subsequent allegations of false campaign finance reports and potentially illegal political funding.
As it turned out, there was a much stronger record of document evidence for the other charges than the he-said-he-won't-say nature of the sex scandal.
Yet, I wonder whether there would have been an impeachment process launched were it not for sensational aspects of the governor's affair.
This focus on sex reminded me of a mistake I made early in my statehouse reporting career.
It began when state auditor George Lehr called me into his office to tell me that the House Appropriations Committee chair privately had threatened him he would cut $1 million from the auditor's budget if he did not fire a female staffer in the office.
Lehr would not tell me why the staffer was targeted.
But another staffer confided she had refused a sexual advance by the committee chair. The targeted staffer, in another off-the-record interview, confirmed the story.
Because both conversations were off the record, I could not report the allegation.
My Journalism School dean at the time, Roy Fisher, advised me I needed an identifiable source for confirmation.
I followed Roy's advice. He was a hard-nosed Chicago Daily News editor who was nominated twice for the Pulitzer prize, sharing one with his staff.
He also had a deep sense of commitment to journalism standards.
So I spent days upon days trying to find reportable confirmation.
I went so far as to visit Jefferson City bars asking bartenders if they'd seen the Appropriations Committee chair with government staffers.
Days later, I was surprised to read in the St. Louis morning newspaper what I thought was an exclusive story Lehr had given me.
The story reported the charge Lehr had told me more than one week earlier about $1 million budget-cut threat if the unnamed female staffer was not fired.
Left out was the sex angle to the story. Nothing was reported about the motivation for the threat.
When I complained to Lehr that he had given away my exclusive that I was working to confirm, he voiced frustration that I'd not immediately reported the story.
Lehr admonished me that what he told me, on the record, was enough for a statewide story.
I couldn't argue with him. He was absolutely correct.
I regularly wondered whether the House impeachment committee was making a mistake similar to mine as they delved into the graphic details of the governor's affair.
In the committee's defense, the other issues they subsequently investigated arose after the sex scandal story broke. It made sense to start on the issue which prompted creation of the committee before turning attention to other allegations.
Besides, allegations of near sexual assault probably have a greater impact for the general public than allegations of political use of donors to an organization Greitens created or violations of complicated campaign finance reporting laws.
Maybe there was a legislative expectation that Greitens would resign to avoid the embarrassment to himself and his family of the truly scandalous sexual allegations that would end up being released by the committee if he stayed in office.
Finally, the committee eventually turned its attention to the other allegations with as much focus as they gave to the sex scandal.
As for the George Lehr story, the sex aspect that had distracted my news judgment ultimately became public.
Enough people in the statehouse had information about the background that it became a growing rumor which one news organization eventually chose to report.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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