ST. LOUIS (AP) — A St. Louis grand jury has indicted Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens on a felony invasion of privacy charge for allegedly taking a compromising photo of a woman with whom he had an affair in 2015, the city circuit attorney's office said Thursday.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner launched an investigation in January after Greitens admitted to an affair with his St. Louis hairdresser that began in March 2015. He was elected governor in November 2016. Gardner declined comment beyond a brief news release.
Greitens' attorney issued a scathing statement challenging the indictment.
"In 40 years of public and private practice, I have never seen anything like this," attorney Edward L. Dowd Jr. said in a statement. "The charges against my client are baseless and unfounded. My client is absolutely innocent. We will be filing a motion to dismiss."
The indictment states that on March 21, 2015, Greitens photographed a woman identified only by her initials "in a state of full or partial nudity" without her knowledge or consent. The indictment said Greitens "transmitted the image contained in the photograph in a manner that allowed access to that image via a computer."
The penalty for first-degree invasion of privacy in Missouri is up to four years in prison.
Greitens was taken into custody in St. Louis and released on his own recognizance, said Susan Ryan, a spokeswoman for Gardner.
In 2015, the woman told her husband, who was secretly taping the conversation, that Greitens took the compromising photo of her at his home and threatened to use it as blackmail if she spoke about the affair. Gardner's news release said it is a felony if a person transmits an image "in a manner that allows access to that image via a computer."
Greitens has repeatedly denied blackmailing the woman, but has repeatedly refused to answer questions about whether he took a photo.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican, said he was shocked by the indictment and called it "certainly serious," but said he needed time to review it before weighing in on whether the governor should step down.
House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty said in a statement it will be "extremely difficult for the governor to effectively do his job with a felony indictment hanging over his head. While the criminal justice system must run its course, the governor needs to consider whether remaining in office under these circumstances is the right thing to do for not only himself and his family but for the people of Missouri."
Greitens, 43, is an brash outsider whose resume as a Rhodes Scholar and Navy SEAL officer made him a rising star in Republican politics. He admitted to the affair on the night of Jan. 10, shortly after he delivered the State of the State address to lawmakers.
At least five Republican legislators and several Democrats called for Greitens to step down after he admitted to the affair. He has said he will not resign.
Greitens emerged the winner in a crowded and expensive GOP primary before defeating the state's attorney general, Democrat Chris Koster, in the November 2016 election to give Republicans control of the governor's mansion for the first time in eight years.
Despite the party's strengthened clout in Jefferson City, there have been frequent clashes between lawmakers and Greitens, who compared them to third-graders and labeled them "career politicians."
He has also faced criticism from some educators and lawmakers for working to pack the State Board of Education with members who would fire the education commissioner, as the governor wanted. Greitens' also was investigated by for his use of a secretive app that deletes messages.
A former boxer and martial arts expert, Greitens portrayed himself as a maverick during the campaign. He responded to a Democratic attack ad with one of his own in which he fired more than 100 rounds from a machine gun as an announcer declared he'd bring out "the big guns" to fight Democratic policies championed by then-President Barack Obama.
He joined the Navy in 2001 and as a SEAL officer was wounded in Iraq six years later. He also served as a White House fellow, founded a nonprofit organization for veterans and authored a best-selling book.
His charity, The Mission Continues, faced scrutiny during the campaign when Democrats accused him of insider politics for accessing the donor list to raise about $2 million through its top contributors.
Greitens and his wife, Sheena, have two sons, Joshua and Jacob.
AP reporters Summer Ballentine and David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri, contributed to this report.