ST. LOUIS – After months of calls, requests, and demands for her to resign, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner is stepping down. Her resignation is effective June 1.
Gardner, the city’s first African American chief prosecutor, tweeted her resignation letter to city residents at 3:44 p.m. In the letter, she drew a connection to her presence in power and the Missouri Legislature’s efforts to take over both the circuit attorney’s office and turn control of the city’s police force back over to the state.
“It is not the first time the legislature has proposed bills that would take away our city’s power — that has happened in nearly every legislative session since I took office. It is also clear to me, however, that as long as I remain in the office, it will not be the last,” Gardner said.
“… I can absorb those attacks, and I have. But I can neither enable nor allow the outright disenfranchisement of the people of the City of St. Louis, nor can I allow these outsiders to effectively shut down our important work. … But I cannot be the final Circuit Attorney ever to be elected in St. Louis. You must be able to have a voice in your criminal justice system. And we must allow our office to continue to operate.”
We’ll have the full text of the letter at the bottom of this story.
The circuit attorney had faced legal battles on numerous fronts via Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey’s drive to remove her from office and indirect criminal contempt cases, and a dwindling roster of prosecutors in her office due to resignations. It’s a situation at least one St. Louis judge dubbed a “rudderless ship of chaos.”
Within minutes of Gardner’s announcement, Bailey issued a statement demanding she step down immediately.
“There is absolutely no reason for the Circuit Attorney to remain in office until June 1. We remain undeterred with our legal quest to forcibly remove her from office. Every day she remains puts the city of St. Louis in more danger,” Bailey said. “How many victims will there be between now and June 1? How many defendants will have their constitutional rights violated? How many cases will continue to go unprosecuted?”
While attending a justice reform panel in late March, Gardner told the audience she would run for a third term as circuit attorney, despite the controversies. At the time, Gardner called Bailey’s lawsuit to remove her “foolish.”
There’s no word if the contempt hearings will be dropped. It’s also unclear what will happen to a bill being pushed in the Missouri Legislature that would give Gov. Parson the power to appoint a special prosecutor in jurisdictions where the homicide rate exceeds a set milestone.
For his part, Gov. Parson acknowledged that he’d received Gardner’s letter and will appoint a replacement who “can help restore faith in the city’s criminal justice system.”
“We fully understand the gravity of this situation and approach our duty to appoint a replacement with the utmost seriousness. We will immediately start the replacement process according to the Missouri Constitution and Section 105.050, RSMo,” the governor said in a statement. “We are committed to finding a candidate who represents the community, values public safety, and can help restore faith in the city’s criminal justice system.”
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, who in February said Gardner had “lost the trust of the people” and should do some soul-searching before making any long-term decision, said Thursday that it’s important the circuit attorney’s office is “managed and staffed effectively” to best serve the residents of the city.
“Circuit Attorney Gardner made history by becoming the first Black woman to lead the office. There’s no doubt she has faced more obstacles than her predecessors because of it. Our Circuit Attorney’s Office is a critical public safety partner, and it must be managed and staffed effectively to help protect constitutional rights and deliver justice,” Jones said.
“No one wanted to see the Circuit Attorney’s Office fail, and my administration has reached out consistently to the Office to offer assistance. We are hopeful that the governor will work with local leaders to appoint a successor who reflects the values of communities across St. Louis.”
Gardner’s six-year tenure as the city’s top prosecutor has been wracked by controversies.
The circuit attorney drew the ire of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in August 2018 after announcing she’d created an “exclusion list” of nearly 30 officers, and would no longer accept cases from them. She added more cops to her list over the years, saying she would refuse to prosecute cases if those officers tried to file charges with her office. In one instance, officers were placed on the exclusion list after a national study called the Plain View Project revealed they allegedly made racist and Islamophobic social media posts.
She was fined more than $63,000 by the Missouri Ethics Commission in December 2018 for using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses during her time as a Missouri representative, and agreed to pay about 10% of that amount. Gardner blamed clerical errors for the mistakes.
Gardner filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in January 2020, alleging the city, the police union, and others, were part of a racist conspiracy to push her out of office. Her lawsuit was dismissed that September, with U.S. District Court judge overseeing the case ruling, “her complaint is nothing more than a compilation of personal slights.”
In May 2022, a three-person disciplinary panel ruled Gardner violated ethics rules and recommended the Missouri Supreme Court reprimand the circuit attorney after she failed to share evidence with Eric Greitens’ attorneys during her 2018 investigation against the former governor. The state’s highest court formally reprimanded Gardner in August 2022.
Gardner acknowledged she failed to turn over notes from an interview her private investigator conducted with the former governor’s mistress. She also admitted failing to turn over the video from the interview, saying she thought the camera was broken.
Gardner’s office eventually dismissed her criminal case against Greitens.
The circuit attorney’s investigator on the Greitens’ case, former FBI agent William Tisaby, pleaded guilty to evidence tampering in March 2022. He received probation but had the sentence suspended.
And over the last few weeks, three assistant circuit attorneys left her office, two of whom were involved in the aforementioned contempt cases.
Chris Desilets resigned on Monday, May 1, effective immediately. More than 100 felony cases on his docket will be split between the last two remaining in the office’s Violent Crimes Unit: Sai Chigarupati and Matt Field. The office has 13 additional prosecutors handling other cases, such as rape and white collar crimes.
Alex Polta resigned on April 28. He’d been with the office since 2017.
Natalia Ogurkiewicz resigned on April 15, citing a toxic work environment, an unbearable workload, and a lack of support. She had been working on the Daniel Riley case. He’s the man accused in the tragic crash which caused Janae Edmondson to lose both her legs.
On Wednesday, FOX 2 learned Gardner had enrolled in nursing courses at Saint Louis University. It’s unclear when exactly she began enrolling in these courses, though it came sometime since she became the circuit attorney.
At a news conference that afternoon, AG Bailey said his office received information weeks ago that Gardner was taking classes, and had subpoenaed the school. Bailey requested the university turn over documents relating to Gardner’s class schedule, her hours and participation in class, hours she may have worked at the school, surveillance camera footage, and relevant conversation between Gardner and her instructors at SLU.
The attorney general cited Missouri statute 56.445, which requires the circuit attorney and their assistants “devote their entire time and energy to the discharge of their official duties.”
Bailey claimed Gardner’s refusal to step down had put lives and property in St. Louis at risk.
“The criminal justice system in the City of St. Louis has ceased to function,” he said. “And people are suffering from her unlawful refusal to do her job.”
Gardner’s supporters, who remained steadfast throughout this ordeal, likened the campaign to remove her from office to a “political lynching.”
At this point, it’s unclear who will assume the circuit attorney role on a long-term basis.
Gardner easily won the Democratic primary for circuit attorney in August 2016 over three challengers, including former St. Louis prosecutor Mary Pat Carl, and ran unopposed in the November general election. She assumed office on Jan. 6, 2017. In 2020, Gardner beat Carl again in the primary en route to landslide victory over Republican Daniel Zdrodowski.
Before becoming circuit attorney, she was a congresswoman in the Missouri House, representing District 77, covering part of St. Louis City. She won Democratic primaries in 2012 and 2014 by wide margins and ran unopposed in general elections. She declined to seek a third term, opting to run for circuit attorney.
Gardner earned a bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration from Harris-Stowe State University in 1999. She attended Saint Louis University School of Law and earned her Juris Doctor (law degree) in 2003. She went back to SLU and procured her master’s degree in nursing in 2012.
She began her law career at Bell, Kirksey & Associates, and worked at the circuit attorney’s office from 2005 to 2010.
Gardner, born and raised in north St. Louis City, worked at her family’s funeral home. On her re-election campaign website, she said seeing the effects of violent crime first hand inspired her to get involved in the healthcare and justice systems.
My Fellow St. Louisians,
I want to start by saying it has been an honor of a lifetime to serve the people of the City of St. Louis, a community that is resilient and deeply committed to finding solutions to make life better for everyone. During my time as Circuit Attorney, I have tried to embody those values. I believe that is why St. Louis voters elected me twice.
Unfortunately, since the time I took office, as the first Black, female prosecutor in the State, people outside of the city have targeted me and, to advance their goals, have also targeted the fundamental rights of the city’s voters. In recent days, for example, The Missouri State Legislature began hearings on a bill that appears to permanently remove the right of every St. Louis voter to elect their Circuit Attorney, the only remaining elected position in our city’s criminal justice system. Instead, that bill gives the Governor the power to appoint our city’s chief prosecutor. It is hard to think of a more direct or brutal assault on our democracy, one that mirrors the attacks in Jackson, Mississippi, and throughout Florida.
It is not the first time the legislature has proposed bills that would take away our city’s power – that has happened in nearly every legislative session since I took office. It is also clear to me, however, that as long as I remain in the office, it will not be the last.
St. Louis is already one of a few jurisdictions in Missouri that does not elect its Circuit judges. The Governor has wielded that power since 1970, when St. Louis opted into the ironically named “Nonpartisan Missouri Court Plan.” That makes the position of elected prosecutor particularly sacred in our city. An elected prosecutor is our city’s sole opportunity to have a say in its community’s criminal justice system. The proposed bill strips that right from all of us. If I can stop that from happening, I will, even if that necessitates my considering leaving the office to which you have elected me.
This most recent bill is a part of a coordinated, long-standing strategy to undermine me and my efforts to make the City of St. Louis safer and fairer. Since day one of my tenure as Circuit Attorney, I have experienced attacks on my reforms, on my judgment, on my integrity, on my prosecutorial discretion, on my responsibility to direct the limited resources of this office and more.
Some of these attacks seem designed to stop the office from functioning, at the expense of public safety. We have experienced an onslaught of records requests that no office in the country could reasonably fulfill, along with attacks on our hard-working line attorneys designed to demoralize these public servants. There is no sign that the onslaught would stop for as long as I am in the office.
I can absorb those attacks, and I have. But I can neither enable nor allow the outright disenfranchisement of the people of the City of St. Louis, nor can I allow these outsiders to effectively shut down our important work. If not for these two things, I would continue to fight tirelessly to maintain the job you selected me to serve. Under my leadership, and with your support, this office has made tremendous strides in redefining public safety. We have established innovative prosecutor-led diversion programs, significantly reduced police misconduct, created pathways to successfully overturn wrongful convictions, and won justice for victims in the most violent cases. We have expanded public health interventions and ramped up our victim’s services to bring trauma-informed care to those most in need of it. We have achieved so many important victories together.
But I cannot be the final Circuit Attorney ever to be elected in St. Louis. You must be able to have a voice in your criminal justice system. And we must allow our office to continue to operate.
I will forever remain a tireless advocate for all who call our beautiful city home. Public safety particularly in states where poverty and disinvestment exist, there is a coordinated intent on taking away the rights we hold dear to live free from devastating gun violence, to control our own bodies, to have a voice in our communities and they are willing to sacrifice democracy to do it. If we allow this to succeed, we may never get these rights back.
The most powerful weapon I have to fight back against these outsiders stealing your voices and your rights is to step back. I took this job to serve the people of the City of St. Louis, and that’s still my North star.
And so, it is with a heavy heart but steadfast resolve that I am resigning my position as your Circuit Attorney, effective June 1st.
Kimberly M. Gardner