JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens used an email address for a veterans charity he founded to arrange political meetings as he prepared to launch his first bid for public office, despite a federal ban on nonprofits participating in political campaigns, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.
Greitens, who was on the board of directors of The Mission Continues at the time, sent meeting invitations from the charity's email address to three political consultants. He asked them to join him for a series of meetings over two days in January 2015 with more than a dozen state lawmakers, a lobbyist and an anti-abortion activist, according to copies of the emails obtained by the AP.
The emails indicate the meetings were hosted at the Jefferson City offices of two Republican consulting firms, less than a month before Greitens officially created a candidate exploratory committee. Participants at the meetings told the AP the topic of discussion was Greitens' impending candidacy.
Federal tax law prohibits 501(c)(3) charities such as The Mission Continues from participating in any political campaign on behalf of a candidate for public office, with penalties ranging up to the loss of their tax-exempt status. The legal consequences for individual charity directors are less clear.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley confirmed through a spokeswoman later Thursday that the office "has an open inquiry into the charitable activities of The Mission Continues." The office has authority to enforce charitable reporting laws and consumer protections laws. It was unclear when its inquiry began.
Greitens also is facing an ongoing investigation by the St. Louis prosecutor's office after a grand jury indicted him last week on a felony invasion-of-privacy charge. The indictment alleges Greitens took a nonconsensual photo of a partially nude woman with whom he was having an affair in March 2015.
Some people interviewed by investigators say their questions have extended to Greitens' political activities, which could add to the mounting troubles facing the first-term Republican governor. The Missouri House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to proceed with its own investigation of Greitens that could determine whether to initiate impeachment proceedings to try to remove him from office.
Experts on rules governing nonprofits told the AP that a scenario such as Greitens' use of the charity's email account could cross the line of what's allowed, though they said that line is not clearly defined.
"It is not appropriate to use 501(c)(3) charitable assets — charitable email addresses, the charitable name — to promote a candidacy for public office," said David L. Thompson, an attorney who is vice president of public policy at the National Council of Nonprofits, based in Washington, D.C.
Greitens officially opened a candidate exploratory committee on Feb. 24, 2015. The fact that the meeting invitations were sent before then muddies questions about legality but doesn't automatically mean it was fine, particularly if Greitens was already functioning like a candidate, several experts said.
Guidance from the Internal Revenue Service on nonprofits' election activities says an individual who hasn't yet announced he is candidate for public office may still be considered one, but that determination is based on the circumstances of each case.
"There is really no clear line when a candidate is a candidate," said Bryan Del Rosario, an attorney for the Arlington, Virginia-based Council on Foundations.
Mission Continues spokeswoman Laura L'Esperance said she was unaware that Greitens' charity email account had been used to send meeting invitations to political consultants in 2015.
"The Mission Continues would discourage any partisan activity using assets or resources of The Mission Continues," L'Esperance told the AP.
Greitens' campaign spokesman Austin Chambers did not immediately respond to messages left Thursday and Wednesday by the AP.
Greitens, 43, is a former Navy SEAL officer who founded The Mission Continues in 2007 to help veterans become involved in their communities. He stepped down as CEO in July 2014 but remained as a director until September 2015, according to the charity's IRS filings.
A meeting invitation email was sent from Greitens' Mission Continues account to political consultants Michael Hafner, Steve Michael and Danny Laub for a series of scheduled meetings Jan. 28, 2015, at the Jefferson City office of the Republican consulting firm Victory Enterprises, for which Michael works. A similar invitation was sent to the consultants for a series of meetings Jan. 29, 2015, at the Jefferson City office of Republican consultant David Barklage, with whom Hafner was affiliated. Laub was working directly for Greitens at the time.
Former state Sen. Jim Lembke, an early Greitens supporter, told the AP he helped arrange some of the meetings at the Victory Enterprises office in order for elected officials to meet Greitens and hopefully support his campaign.
"It was definitely political activity," Lembke said.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe confirmed to the AP that he attended a meeting with Greitens and Hafner at Barklage's office. Kehoe said he doesn't recall their precise conversation but added, "it was probably for him to tell me about political aspirations."
Greitens also came under scrutiny during his campaign for the overlap between his charitable and candidate connections.
In October 2016, the AP reported that Greitens' campaign staff had accessed a spreadsheet listing Mission Continues donors in early 2015. An AP analysis found that Greitens' gubernatorial campaign had raised nearly $2 million from donors who had previously given significant amounts to the charity.
Greitens told the AP in October 2016 that his campaign didn't work off the Mission Continues donor list, but he acknowledged asking some people who had supported the Mission Continues to also support his campaign. In April 2017, Greitens' campaign agreed to pay a $100 penalty to the Missouri Ethics Commission for failing to report the receipt of the charity's donor list. His campaign finance report was amended to show the donor list as an in-kind donation valued at $600 from Laub on March 1, 2015.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported earlier this week that it had obtained a copy of an email indicating that a Greitens employee had shared The Mission Continues donor list with Hafner and Laub in January 2015.