By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) - Missouri's attorney general called on Governor Eric Greitens, a fellow Republican, to resign on Wednesday, saying the findings of a newly released state legislative report on the sex scandal embroiling the governor are grounds for his impeachment.
Attorney General Josh Hawley, also a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Claire McCaskill, said the report "contains shocking, substantial and corroborated evidence of wrongdoing" by the 44-year-old governor.
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Greitens, who is charged with felony invasion of privacy in connection with an admitted extramarital affair in 2015, before his election, repeated that he is innocent of any criminal wrongdoing and called the relationship in question "entirely consensual."
Earlier on Wednesday, he called a news conference in Jefferson City, the state capital, to declare he was determined to stay in office while fighting to clear his name in court. He said he was the victim of a "political witch-hunt" stemming from a "private mistake" that had nothing to do with his job as governor.
"The people of Missouri see through this, and they know far better than to trust one-sided tabloid trash gossip that was produced in a secret report," he said.
The governor, a married father of two, spoke shortly before a special bipartisan committee of the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives released its 24-page document.
The report contained excerpts of sworn testimony from the woman at the center of the scandal, a hair stylist referred to only as "Witness 1," describing in lurid detail a tumultuous, months-long affair punctuated by instances of physical abuse, jealous rage and manipulative behavior by Greitens.
The work of the seven-member panel was presented as a fact-finding mission, with no recommendations as to what actions, if any, the legislature should take. But the committee said it found the woman "to be an overall credible witness."
The report, which also contained corroborating testimony from two of the woman's friends and her former husband, said Greitens declined to testify before the panel or answer written questions under oath.
The document escalated fallout from a scandal that could undermine the Republican Party's hopes of ousting McCaskill, a Democrat regarded as one of the more politically vulnerable senators in the upcoming November congressional elections.
Hawley, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to challenge McCaskill, said Greitens' conduct as outlined in the report "is certainly impeachable, in my judgment, and the House is well within its rights to proceed on that front." He urged the governor to resign instead.
The Missouri state constitution counts "moral turpitude" as grounds for impeachment.
The criminal case against him is more narrowly defined. Greitens was indicted in February on a single count of invasion of privacy - an offense carrying a maximum penalty of four years in prison.
He is accused of taking a compromising photograph of the woman in question without her consent to use as a means of blackmail to keep their relationship secret.
According to the House report, the woman recounted their first liaison as a menacing, "coerced" sexual encounter in his basement in which he bound her hands, blindfolded her and ripped off her clothes without her consent before snapping a photo of her and threatening to disseminate the image if their affair became public.
"Don't even mention my name to anybody at all, because if you do, I'm going to take these pictures, and I'm going to put them everywhere I can. ... and then everyone will know what a little whore you are," she quoted him as saying at the time.
Greitens has denied threatening to blackmail her.
She testified that she ultimately agreed to perform oral sex on Greitens in order to get the situation over with so she could leave, saying the interaction left her frightened, humiliated and "disgusted." But she acknowledged consenting to several more sexual encounters over the next few months before finally insisting that they cease further contact.
The Republican speaker of the Missouri House, Todd Richardson, told reporters he stood by the committee's work, saying, "This was not a witch-hunt." He added, "The testimony outlined in the report is beyond disturbing."
A trial for the invasion-of-privacy case is scheduled to open next month. On Tuesday, St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison imposed a partial gag order on attorneys, witnesses and other parties to the criminal case.
(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Kevin Murphy in Kansas City and Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Editing by Darren Schuettler)