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Court documents suggest reason for police raid of Kansas newspaper

Police allege reporter either impersonated someone else or lied about her intentions
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A makeshift shrine is set up in front of the Marion County Record in Marion, Kan. on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023 with a picture of the newspaper’s co-owner Joan Meyer and flowers. (Jaime Green /The Wichita Eagle via AP)

The police chief who led the raid of a Kansas newspaper alleged in previously unreleased court documents a reporter either impersonated someone else or lied about her intentions when she obtained the driving records of a local business owner.

But reporter Phyllis Zorn, Marion County Record Editor and Publisher Eric Meyer and the newspaper’s attorney said Sunday that no laws were broken when Zorn accessed a public state website for information on restaurant operator Kari Newell.

The raid carried out Aug. 11 and led by Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody brought international attention to the small central Kansas town that now finds itself at the center of a debate over press freedoms. Police seized computers, personal cellphones and a router from the newspaper, but all items were released Wednesday after the county prosecutor concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to justify the action.

Late Saturday, the Record’s attorney, Bernie Rhodes, provided copies of the affidavits used in the raid to The Associated Press and other news media. The documents that had previously not been released. They showed that Zorn’s obtaining of Newell’s driving record was the driving force behind the raid.

The newspaper, acting on a tip, checked the public website of the Kansas Department of Revenue for the status of Newell’s driver’s license as it related to a 2008 conviction for drunk driving.

Cody wrote in the affidavit that the Department of Revenue told him that those who downloaded the information were Record reporter Phyllis Zorn and someone using the name “Kari Newell.” Cody wrote that he contacted Newell who said “someone obviously stole her identity.”

As a result, Cody wrote: “Downloading the document involved either impersonating the victim or lying about the reasons why the record was being sought.”

The license records are normally confidential under state law, but can be accessed under certain circumstances, cited in the affidavit. The online user can request their own records but must provide a driver’s license number and date of birth.

The records may also be provided in other instances, such as to lawyers for use in a legal matter; for insurance claim investigations; and for research projects about statistical reports with the caveat that the personal information won’t be disclosed.

Meyer said Zorn actually contacted the Department of Revenue before her online search and was instructed how to search records. Zorn, asked to respond to the allegations that she used Newell’s name to obtain Newell’s personal information, said, “My response is I went to a Kansas Department of Revenue website and that’s where I got the information.”

She added, “Not to my knowledge was anything illegal or wrong.”

Rhodes, the newspaper’s attorney, said Zorn’s actions were legal under both state and federal laws. Using the subject’s name “is not identity theft,” Rhodes said. “That’s just the way of accessing that person’s record.”

The newspaper had Newell’s driver’s license number and date of birth because a source provided it, unsolicited, Meyer said. Ultimately, the Record decided not to write about Newell’s record. But when she revealed at a subsequent City Council meeting that she had driven while her license was suspended, that was reported.

The investigation into whether the newspaper broke state laws continues, now led by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. State Attorney General Kris Kobach has said he doesn’t see the KBI’s role as investigating the conduct of the police.

Some legal experts believe the Aug. 11 raid violated a federal privacy law that protects journalists from having their newsrooms searched. Some also believe it violated a Kansas law that makes it more difficult to force reporters and editors to disclose their sources or unpublished material.

Cody has not responded to several requests for comment, including an email request on Sunday. He defended the raid in a Facebook post soon after it happened, saying the federal law shielding journalists from newsroom searches makes an exception specifically for “when there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing.”

The Record received an outpouring of support from other news organizations and media groups after the raid. Meyer said it has picked up at least 4,000 additional subscribers, enough to double the size of its press run, though many of the new subscriptions are digital.

Meyer blamed the stress from the raid for the Aug. 12 death of his 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, the paper’s co-owner. Her funeral services were Saturday.

READ ALSO: Small town police, newspaper press freedom fight swirls after newsroom raid

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