Some black activists in St. Louis say there's an unfair racial component to criticism of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner over her hiring of a man who led the investigation of former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and who now faces perjury charges.
About a dozen black activists gathered Tuesday outside of a downtown courthouse to defend Gardner and the investigator, William Tisaby, who are both black. Tisaby faces six counts of perjury and one count of tampering with evidence stemming from his investigation of Greitens.
"The bottom line is this whole episode is racism," said Zaki Baruti, who heads the St. Louis-based Universal African Peoples Organization. He said the black community needs "someone who's in our interest and Kim Gardner is that person, and we are not going to allow her to be treated as she's being treated."
Gardner, a Democrat, was elected in November 2016 after campaigning to rebuild trust in the criminal justice system at a time when the St. Louis area was still healing from the events in nearby Ferguson, where a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, two years earlier.
She has been at odds with the law enforcement establishment virtually since taking office.
Like many among the new wave of progressive urban prosecutors across the U.S., Gardner has moved away from prosecuting low-level drug crimes. She angered police leaders and the police union last year by creating an "exclusion list" made up of more than two dozen officers who she said were so lacking in credibility that they won't be permitted as primary witnesses in criminal cases.
In January, Gardner's criticism of how police investigated a male officer's alleged Russian roulette-style fatal shooting of a female colleague drew an angry rebuke from police Chief John Hayden. The male officer, Nathaniel Hendren, is awaiting trial on involuntary manslaughter charges.
But the biggest wedge occurred in January 2018, when Gardner sidestepped police and hired Tisaby, a former FBI agent, to investigate Greitens, a Republican who had just admitted to an affair with his St. Louis hairdresser that happened in 2015, a year before he was elected.
Gardner charged Greitens with felony invasion of privacy, accusing him of taking a compromising photo of the woman and threatening to share it if she exposed the affair.
The charge was eventually dropped, but the fallout was significant on both sides: Greitens, facing additional investigations and legislative scrutiny, resigned in June 2018 — his once promising political career in shambles. Tisaby surrendered to authorities on Monday.
Tisaby's attorney, Jermaine Wooten, said Tuesday that Tisaby is "absolutely, 100 percent innocent."
Gardner's reliance on Tisaby and her office's overall handling of the Greitens case drew strong criticism from Greitens' attorneys, who asked police to investigate whether Tisaby lied under oath as part of a deposition of the woman.
The indictment alleged that Tisaby denied taking notes during his interview of the hairdresser, although a recording of the interview showed him doing so. The indictment also said that while Tisaby claimed he didn't receive notes from the prosecutor's office before interviewing the woman, a document uncovered during grand jury proceedings shows that Gardner provided Tisaby her notes.
The indictment also said Gardner failed to correct false statements and noted that relying on an outside investigator rather than police was "contrary to normal protocol."
Scott Rosenblum, one of Greitens' former lawyers, described the prosecution of Greitens as "misguided" and said he "should still be governor."
Gardner, meanwhile, has raised her own concerns about Greitens' defense team. She told a judge in April 2018 that attorneys for Greitens threatened to "ruin" her if she didn't drop the criminal case against him. She said in a statement Tuesday that she told police of the threat in June 2018 and was interviewed by police in October. Greitens' former attorneys have denied making any threat.
Gardner said she asked about two weeks ago for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate her claims about Greitens' lawyers threatening her.
Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis NAACP, questioned why the investigation of Gardner's allegation is dragging.
"Where can you go where you can threaten a prosecutor while she's prosecuting a case, and it's not investigated thoroughly and it's not taken seriously, especially when you go tell the judge?" Pruitt asked.
Jeff Roorda, business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers' Association, has been a frequent critic of Gardner. In the December issue of a union newsletter, he penned a Dr. Seuss parody entitled, "The Grinch That Stole Justice," with verses that included, "You're a disaster, Misses Kim, your heart is dark and vile."
Roorda said any allegation that the investigation involving Gardner is racially motivated is "absurd."
"Cops expect people who violate the law to be answerable for their crimes," Roorda said in an email. "Prosecutors should feel the same way. That's all that's going on here."