Confidential affidavits detail the motivations for the police raid on the Kansas newspaper

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Confidential affidavits detail the motivations for the police raid on the Kansas newspaper
Confidential affidavits detail the motivations for the police raid on the Kansas newspaper

MARION, Kan. — The police chief who led a widely criticized crackdown on a Kansas newspaper newsroom told a judge that a reporter there accessed a restaurant owner’s driving record from a state database and could not have done so without ” or impersonate the victim or lie about the reasons the record was sought,” according to confidential court records used to obtain a warrant to search the premises.

In previously unreported affidavits, Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody also told a judge that the Kansas Department of Revenue confirmed to him that Marion County Record reporter Phyllis Zorn had downloaded the personal recording. The documents provide the first public account of the evidence cited to justify the attack.

Zorn confirmed to The Washington Post that she downloaded the recording, a process that involved entering a name, date of birth and driver’s license number. She said she did it to verify information she received from a source. The paper’s editor and publisher Eric Meier said he did not believe Zorn committed a crime. He said the recording was made available for research purposes and that it was not intended to be used maliciously. “There is no criminal intent,” he said.

Meyer allowed for the opportunity that the paper had technically crossed the border by searching the database, but said that “even though it was illegal for us to do that, the police response was like bringing out the SWAT team to cross the road.”

The August 11 police action sparked outrage among First Amendment advocates and news organizations across the country. Officers seized computers, phones and other records during the search, an event almost unprecedented in recent American history. Meyer’s home was also searched, as was the home of a city council member. The Record said the stress of the attack contributed to the sudden death the next day of Meyer’s 98-year-old mother, Joan, who co-owned the paper.

Marion County Prosecutor Joel Ency, who is the district attorney, said Wednesday that “insufficient evidence” was used to connect the alleged crimes being investigated — the most serious of which is a felony — to searched locations. He asked the police to return the property seized from the newspaper. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said it is still looking into whether the newspaper violated state law.

The action stemmed from a dispute between the restaurant’s owner, Carrie Newell, and her estranged husband, Ryan, according to interviews with individuals named in the affidavit and others involved.

Ryan Newell told The Post he was upset that his wife continued to drive and apply for a liquor license despite losing her driver’s license in 2008 due to a drunken driving conviction. Newell said he also worries about the insurance risks of his wife driving his car without a license.

Newell said a source, who did not want to be identified, gave him a screenshot of his wife’s driving protocol, from which it is clear that she does not have a valid driver’s license. He said he gave the screenshot to a friend, Pam Maag, who gave it to Councilwoman Ruth Herbel. Herbel also wanted to use it to block the renewal of the liquor license, according to Cody’s affidavits.

Maag told The Post that she also gave the information to Zorn. Maag said she doesn’t think someone with a suspended driver’s license should be eligible for a liquor license and that she has no regrets about how she handled it.

“Whatever. Did I send the information to Phyllis and the counselor? I did,” Maag said.

Herbel declined to comment.

Carrie Newell in recent days she has been inundated with messages on social media accusing her of inciting the attack as a way to get revenge on the newspaper for publishing her drink-driving conviction. She told The Post that she had not asked anyone to investigate the paper and was upset by the death of Meyer’s mother. “My heart is broken for their family,” she said.

But she said neither reporters nor anyone else has the right to use non-public information from her driver’s license to look up her personal information. She wants the investigation to continue against anyone who logged in to get information.

Newell confirmed that she lost her license after being convicted of drunk driving and that she had been driving while her license was suspended.

Coady submitted three affidavits with his requests for search warrants at Meyer’s home, the newspaper’s office and Herbel’s home. Under Kansas law, the affidavits are not available to the public for 10 days after the warrants are served so that the parties involved can request that they be redacted or permanently sealed.

The police chief claimed in the affidavit that evidence could be found at those locations that Zorn had committed identity theft, felony and computer crimes by accessing the driver’s record. Users of the website, run by the Department of Revenue, which oversees driving licenses and penalties, must choose from several reasons why they are allowed to view records that are normally confidential under the Driver Privacy Act.

Allowable reasons listed in the affidavits include users requesting their own records or being licensed private investigators. The only reason research is referenced is for statistical reporting that will not reveal individuals’ personal information. There are no exemptions listed for media studies.

In an interview, Zorn defended his actions.

“It would be irresponsible to just take someone’s word for it there,” she said. “I verified the authenticity of the submission.”

In the affidavit, Cody said Meyer told him in an Aug. 4 email that the newspaper had “obtained a copy of someone’s private Department of Revenue records” and that the records may have been released because of police misconduct.

Three days later, Carrie Newell addressed the city council and claimed the newspaper had illegally obtained her driving record. During a conversation that night, Meyer admitted to Newell that Zorn had downloaded her tape and that as a result, “there would be no story” about him, according to one of Cody’s affidavits.

Newell alleged that Meyer “then threatened her,” the affidavit said, warning that “if you pursue anything, I will print the story and continue to use everything I can to attack you. I will own your restaurant.

Meyer denied threatening Newell, but confirmed he warned her to stop publicly defaming the paper. “I said, ‘Carrie, I don’t think it’s a good idea to make a big fuss about it,'” he told The Post.

The Record ran a story on Aug. 9, under Meyer’s name, that said Newell had lost her license because of a drunken driving conviction. The story, titled “Restaurant Blames Paper, Councilwoman,” reported the allegations Newell made at the meeting. It said the man who provided Newell’s tape to the newspaper and Herbel “boasted about maintaining ‘connections’ even though he was no longer in law enforcement.”

Maag told The Post that she worked in law enforcement years ago, but that had nothing to do with how the tape was obtained.

Two days after that story broke, Cody signed affidavits saying he believed “certain contraband, fruit, funds and evidence” of identity theft and computer crimes may be located at Meyer’s home, the home of Herbel and the Record editorial staff.

Magistrate Judge Laura E. Viar approved the applications and the searches were conducted that day.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 36 news organizations, including The Post, wrote to Coady on August 13 to protest the raid, which they said was “likely in violation of federal law.”

In a brief phone interview, Coady told The Post that he thought the media coverage of the search was unfair. “This is a Fourth Amendment situation, not a First Amendment situation,” he said, referring to constitutional measures against unreasonable searches by law enforcement and freedom of the press. Cody declined to answer further questions.

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