St. Louis prosecutor: Racist interests try to force her out

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner on Monday filed what she called an unprecedented federal civil rights lawsuit, accusing the city, the local police union and others of a co-ordinated and racist conspiracy aimed at forcing her out of office.

Gardner, the city's elected prosecutor, also accused “entrenched interests” of intentionally impeding her efforts to reform racist practices that have led to a loss of trust in the criminal justice system.

The lawsuit alleges civil rights violations as well as violations of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Gardner is black. The named defendants are white.

The lawsuit names the city of St. Louis, the St. Louis Police Officers Association, its business manager, Jeff Roorda, and Gerard Carmody, a special prosecutor who indicted an investigator hired by Gardner. It also names Carmody’s son and daughter, who helped in his investigation, and a former police officer who sued over Gardner’s use of private attorneys related to Carmody’s investigation.

“This is about the will of the people being silenced by a concerted effort to stop reform in the city of St. Louis, and this has to be addressed," Gardner said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“This is saying, ‘No more are we going to let the powerful few who want to hold onto the status quo prevent an elected prosecutor from doing her job,”'she said. Gardner said she believes the lawsuit is the first of it's kind and that she has the support of other progressive prosecutors.

Roorda said the union considered the lawsuit “frivolous and without merit.” A spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson declined comment. Messages left with Gerard Carmody were not immediately returned.

In her lawsuit, Gardner cites St. Louis’ “long history of racial inequality and prejudice in its criminal justice system generally, and within its police force particularly.” She said she was elected to change that, but that the police union and others “have mobilized to thwart these efforts,” including “the unprecedented appointment of a white, ethically conflicted Special Prosecutor” in an effort to oust Gardner.

“The Ku Klux Klan Act was adopted to address precisely this scenario: a racially motivated conspiracy to deny the civil rights of racial minorities by obstructing a government official’s efforts to ensure equal justice under law for all,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit cites a watchdog group’s report last year that identified several St. Louis officers accused of posting racist, violent or prejudiced messages on Facebook. Some of the posts highlighted by The Plain View Project included one in 2014 showing a black officer standing with two black demonstrators, calling the officer “Captain ‘Hug a Thug’” and “a disgrace to the uniform.” Another post in 2018 read: “If the Confederate flag is racist, then so is Black History Month.”

Two veteran officers were fired after the Facebook postings became public.

The lawsuit says the police union “has gone out of its way to support white officers accused of perpetrating acts of violence and excessive force against African American citizens.” It cites Roorda’s support of Darren Wilson, the white officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. That killing touched off months of protests. Wilson was not charged with a crime and he later resigned.

The lawsuit also cites how a black undercover officer was allegedly attacked by four white colleagues who mistook him for a protester during a 2017 demonstration in downtown St. Louis after a white officer was acquitted of killing a black suspect. The police union provided lawyers after the officers were indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Gardner’s lawsuit said Gerard Carmody’s appointment as special prosecutor was especially concerning because of his lifelong friendship with Edward L. Dowd Jr., one of Greitens’ attorneys. The two went to school together and served in the same law practice. Gardner said her efforts to raise conflict-of-interest concerns were ignored.

Gardner, a Democrat, became the city’s first African American circuit attorney when she was elected in 2016. Her relationship with police was testy from the start.

Soon after taking office, she announced she would cease prosecutions of low-level marijuana crimes. In 2018, she developed an “exclusion list” of more than two dozen police officers who were barred from serving as primary witnesses in criminal cases over what Gardner called credibility concerns. The move angered Police Chief John Hayden, who also is black, and drew a strong rebuke from many others, including Roorda, a former police officer and state legislator, who is white.

But she drew her strongest criticism in 2018, when she hired a private investigator, former FBI agent William Tisaby, rather than working with police to investigate claims that then-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens took a compromising photo of a woman during an extra-marital affair. The investigation led to a felony invasion of privacy charge. Though the charge was eventually dropped, Greitens, a Republican, resigned in June 2018.

Meanwhile, Greitens’ attorneys accused Tisaby of perjury by lying during a deposition. Last June, Carmody indicted Tisaby for perjury. Tisaby denied wrongdoing and his case is still pending.

The indictment also raised concerns about whether Gardner was complicit in Tisaby’s alleged crimes, saying she failed to correct his inaccuracies or report them, and that she made incorrect statements to defence lawyers and a judge. She said she did nothing illegal or unethical. She was not indicted but the investigation is ongoing.

The police union's Roorda called Gardner's lawsuit “a frantic ploy to distract the public from Gardner's court ordered deposition on Wednesday” related to the probe into Tisaby's conduct.

Roy Austin, a Washington-based lawyer for Gardner, said her legal fees are being covered by Mothers Against Police Brutality, a Dallas-based non-profit founded by a woman whose son was shot and killed by Dallas police in 2013.

Jim Salter, The Associated Press