A George Soros-bankrolled prosecutor in St. Louis already mired in allegations of negligence and misconduct was hit with more bad news on Friday, when one of the few remaining prosecutors who handles the city’s most violent felonies abruptly resigned, citing a “toxic work environment.”
Natalia Ogurkiewicz, 27, joined the office of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner in 2020 and handled several murder and other felony cases. She initially planned to leave Gardner’s office at the end of the month but announced Friday she was departing early, local media reported.
In her resignation letter, Ogurkiewicz didn’t hold back in lambasting Gardner while explaining her reasons for leaving.
“As a St. Louis resident, I have lost trust in Kim Gardner from the inside,” wrote Ogurkiewicz. “I do not believe that her leadership can stop the metaphorical or physical ballistics from continuing to fly through our city.”
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner speaks in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jim Salter)
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Gardner is one of the first prosecutors whom Soros, a liberal billionaire and Democrat mega-donor, bankrolled in 2016 and again for her re-election in 2020. She announced last month that she’ll seek a third term.
Ogurkiewicz’s departure is the latest example of persistent staffing issues that have plagued Gardner’s office, which has long been understaffed and now has just five prosecutors left to handle hundreds of violent felonies.
Gardner, who took office in 2017, had a more than 100% turnover rate for attorneys in her first two years in office and by earlier this year had about half as many attorneys on staff as when she assumed the job. The effect of the high turnover in Gardner’s office has been “a state of dysfunction, low morale and dearth of legal wisdom necessary to safeguard the public from potentially dangerous criminals,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch previously reported.
A spokeswoman for the Circuit Attorney’s Office told the Post-Dispatch that the office couldn’t speak on personal matters but “continues to aggressively recruit and hire attorneys and support staff to serve the people of the city of St. Louis.”
The latest resignation comes as Gardner, a Democrat, is in a legal fight to hold onto her job. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, a Republican, launched a legal process seeking to fire her, claiming the prosecutor is neglecting her duties by not enforcing the law or protecting public safety.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, right, and Ronald Sullivan, a Harvard law professor, arrive at the Civil Courts building on May 14, 2018. (Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
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In her resignation letter, Ogurkiewicz said it was nearly impossible for prosecutors to keep up with the demands of an understaffed office, no matter how many hours they worked, describing an “untenable” workload. Due to the staffing situation, Ogurkiewicz outlined how she had to fill several different roles and therefore spent significant time filing charges or issuing warrants rather than preparing for trials.
In 2021, Gardner came under fire after three murder cases under her purview were dismissed in one week due to prosecutors in her office not showing up for hearings or being unprepared.
More recently, St. Louis prosecutors last week dismissed and refiled charges against two men accused of killing a father and his seven-year-old daughter, likely pushing back the trial by months. According to an investigation by local CBS affiliate KMOV, the reason for the dismissal and refiling is that “the prosecutors weren’t ready for trial,” which had been set to take place in a matter of days.
Dismissing and refiling cases has become increasingly common as Gardner’s understaffed office has struggled to prepare for trials, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis.
Gardner’s office seemed to blame police for having to dismiss and refile the double-murder case: “In this case, the CAO [Circuit Attorney’s Office] was not provided evidence in a timely manner due to acknowledged staffing challenges at the police department,” Gardner spokeswoman Allison Hawk said in a statement.
Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey (Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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The St. Louis Police Officers’ Association responded by lambasting Gardner’s office for trying to shift the blame. “Police officers shouldn’t be made scapegoats for an overworked, backlogged and mismanaged Circuit Attorney’s Office,” the union said in a statement.
Ogurkiewicz noted the Circuit Attorney Office’s worsening relationship with St. Louis police during Gardner’s tenure has made prosecutors’ jobs more difficult, writing that “ongoing political and ideological conflict [with] the police department has obliterated the necessary teamwork and relationship for an agreed-upon system to exist.”
Ogurkiewicz, who has been subpoenaed in the attorney general’s lawsuit seeking Gardner’s removal, also slammed her former boss for her response to Bailey.
In February, Bailey filed a petition quo warranto, the legal mechanism under state statute that allows the attorney general to remove a prosecutor who neglects her duties.
“This is about a quantum of evidence that demonstrates her failure to prosecute cases, failure to inform and confer with victims in cases and failure to file new cases that are referred by law enforcement agencies,” Bailey told Fox News Digital at the time of the filing.
Law enforcement investigate the scene of a shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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He separately said in a statement that Gardner is “creating” victims instead of “protecting” them.
Bailey claims that nearly 12,000 criminal cases have been dismissed due to what he calls Gardner’s failures. He also says that more than 9,000 cases were thrown out as they were about to go to trial, forcing judges to dismiss more than 2,000 cases due to what Bailey described as a failure to provide defendants with evidence and speedy trials.
Gardner, who has refused to leave office amid Bailey’s probe, has called Bailey’s efforts a political witch hunt and a form of “voter suppression,” suggesting that racism and sexism are behind some of the criticism against her. On Tuesday, she responded to Bailey’s allegations in a legal filing.
“His amended petition is a gross power grab, an affront to the liberties of all Missourians and the democratic process,” said Gardner. “If the attorney general or the political interests behind his petition were truly concerned about crime in St. Louis, they would seek to assist with resources.”
Gardner also blamed her subordinates for potential problems in a recent filing, an example of finger-pointing that Ogurkiewicz took issue with in her letter.
Kimberly Gardner (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Tribune News Service via Getty Images | AP Photo/Jim Salter)
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“I will not work for a leader who makes public statements outright calling her attorneys ‘negligent’ and implying their incompetence,” wrote Ogurkiewicz. “I feel like leading with integrity looks like standing by and supporting staff through all difficulties, not herding them like sheep to a media frenzy slaughter.”
A hearing is set for next week as part of Bailey’s removal effort for Gardner and members of her office to appear before a judge.
Ogurkiewicz, who worked in private practice before joining Gardner’s office, described the Circuit Attorney’s Office as a “toxic work environment” where basic prosecutorial tasks weren’t getting accomplished
Last week, for example, a St. Louis judge sanctioned Gardner’s office for withholding evidence in a double-homicide case and for allowing the suspect out on bond.
“The court finds that there have been repeated delays by the state in obtaining discovery and providing it to the defense,” the judge wrote. “There has been a lack of diligence on the part of the state in following up and providing discovery to the defendant in a timely fashion. As a result of the state’s actions and lack of diligence, the court grants defendant’s second motion for sanctions.”
Janae Edmondson was in a crosswalk with her parents on her way home from a volleyball tournament when Daniel Riley allegedly sped through a yield sign, striking her and another car. (Town of Smyrna, St. Louis Police Department)
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That same week, the attorney for a man accused of striking teenage volleyball player Janae Edmonson with his car and causing her to lose her legs entered a not-guilty plea on behalf of his client, but a judge had to print a copy of the indictment for him in court, because Daniel Riley’s attorney told the presiding judge that he had never got a copy of the indictment for his client from Gardner’s Office, so the judge printed one for him while he was in the courtroom, according to local reports.
Edmonson had been visiting St. Louis with her volleyball team. Riley, the man charged with assault, armed criminal action and operating a motor vehicle without a valid license, was out on bail awaiting trial for an armed robbery from 2020 and had violated the terms of his bond at least 50 times, according to local reports.
However, there is no record of Gardner’s office, which is responsible for monitoring compliance with bond conditions and revoking them when those terms are violated, asking for Riley’s bond to be revoked.
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The case prompted Bailey to seek Gardner’s removal from office.