By Sherman Smith, Sam Bailey, Rachel Mipro And Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector
MARION, KS — In an unprecedented raid Friday, local law enforcement seized computers, cellphones and reporting materials from the Marion County Record office, the newspaper’s reporters, and the publisher’s home.
Eric Meyer, owner and publisher of the newspaper, said police were motivated by a confidential source who leaked sensitive documents to the newspaper, and the message was clear: “Mind your own business or we’re going to step on you.”
The city’s entire five-officer police force and two sheriff’s deputies took “everything we have,” Meyer said, and it wasn’t clear how the newspaper staff would take the weekly publication to press Tuesday night.
The raid followed news stories about a restaurant owner who kicked reporters out of a meeting last week with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, and revelations about the restaurant owner’s lack of a driver’s license and conviction for drunken driving.
Meyer said he had never heard of police raiding a newspaper office during his 20 years at the Milwaukee Journal or 26 years teaching journalism at the University of Illinois.
“It’s going to have a chilling effect on us even tackling issues,” Meyer said, as well as “a chilling effect on people giving us information.”
The search warrant, signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, appears to violate federal law that provides protections against searching and seizing materials from journalists. The law requires law enforcement to subpoena materials instead. Viar didn’t respond to a request to comment for this story or explain why she would authorize a potentially illegal raid.
Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said the police raid is unprecedented in Kansas.
“An attack on a newspaper office through an illegal search is not just an infringement on the rights of journalists but an assault on the very foundation of democracy and the public’s right to know,” Bradbury said. “This cannot be allowed to stand.”
Meyer reported last week that Marion restaurant owner Kari Newell had kicked newspaper staff out of a public forum with LaTurner, whose staff was apologetic. Newell responded to Meyer’s reporting with hostile comments on her personal Facebook page.
A confidential source contacted the newspaper, Meyer said, and provided evidence that Newell had been convicted of drunken driving and continued to use her vehicle without a driver’s license. The criminal record could jeopardize her efforts to obtain a liquor license for her catering business.
A reporter with the Marion Record used a state website to verify the information provided by the source. But Meyer suspected the source was relaying information from Newell’s husband, who had filed for divorce. Meyer decided not to publish a story about the information, and he alerted police to the situation.
“We thought we were being set up,” Meyer said.
Police notified Newell, who then complained at a city council meeting that the newspaper had illegally obtained and disseminated sensitive documents, which isn’t true. Her public comments prompted the newspaper to set the record straight in a story published Thursday.
Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar signed a search warrant authorizing the police raid of the newspaper office.
Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar signed a search warrant authorizing the police raid of the newspaper office. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)
Sometime before 11 a.m. Friday, officers showed up simultaneously at Meyer’s home and the newspaper office. They presented a search warrant that alleges identity theft and unlawful use of a computer.
The search warrant identifies two pages worth of items that law enforcement officers were allowed to seize, including computer software and hardware, digital communications, cellular networks, servers and hard drives, items with passwords, utility records, and all documents and records pertaining to Newell. The warrant specifically targeted ownership of computers capable of being used to “participate in the identity theft of Kari Newell.”
Officers injured a reporter’s finger by grabbing her cellphone out of her hand, Meyer said. Officers at his home took photos of his bank account information.
He said officers told him the computers, cellphones and other devices would be sent to a lab.
“I don’t know when they’ll get it back to us,” Meyer said. “They won’t tell us.”
The seized computers, server and backup hard drive include advertisements and legal notices that were supposed to appear in the next edition of the newspaper.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said. “We will publish something.”
Newell, writing Friday under a changed name on her personal Facebook account, said she “foolishly” received a DUI in 2008 and “knowingly operated a vehicle without a license out of necessity.”
“Journalists have become the dirty politicians of today, twisting narrative for bias agendas, full of muddied half-truths,” Newell wrote. “We rarely get facts that aren’t baited with misleading insinuations.”
She said the “entire debacle was brought forth in an attempt to smear my name, jeopardize my licensing through ABC (state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division), harm my business, seek retaliation, and for personal leverage in an ongoing domestic court battle.”
At the law enforcement center in Marion, a staff member said only Police Chief Gideon Cody could answer questions for this story, and that Cody had gone home for the day and could not be reached by phone. The office of Attorney General Kris Kobach wasn’t available to comment on the legal controversy in Marion, which is north of Wichita in central Kansas.
Melissa Underwood, communications director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, replied by email to a question about whether the KBI was involved in the case.
“At the request of the Marion Police Department, on Tuesday, Aug. 8, we began an investigation into allegations of criminal wrongdoing in Marion, Kansas. The investigation is ongoing,” Underwood said.
Meyer, whose father worked at the newspaper from 1948 until he retired, bought the Marion County Record in 1998, preventing a sale to a corporate newspaper chain.
As a journalism professor in Illinois, Meyer said, he had graduate students from Egypt who talked about how people would come into the newspaper office and seize everything so they couldn’t publish. Those students presented a scholarly paper at a conference in Toronto about what it has done to journalism there.
“That’s basically what they’re trying to do here,” Meyer said. “The intervention is just like that repressive government of Egypt. I didn’t think it could happen in America.”