The police chief who led the raid on a Kansas newspaper has alleged in unreleased court documents that a reporter posed as someone else or lied about his intentions when she obtained driving records of a local business owner.
But reporter Phyllis Zorn, Marion County editor and publisher Eric Meyer and the newspaper’s attorney said Sunday that no law was broken when Zorn accessed a public website to obtain information about restaurateur Kari Newell.
The Aug. 11 raid, led by Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, drew international attention to the small central Kansas town that now finds itself at the center of a debate over press freedom . Police seized computers, personal cellphones and a router from the newspaper, but all of the items were released Wednesday after the county prosecutor concluded there was insufficient evidence to warrant action. .
Late Saturday, Record attorney Bernie Rhodes provided copies of the affidavits used in the raid to The Associated Press and other media. Documents that have not been published before. They showed that Zorn obtaining Newell’s driving record was the driving force behind the raid.
The newspaper, acting on a tip, checked the Kansas Department of Revenue’s public website for Newell’s driver’s license status in relation to a 2008 drunk driving conviction.
Cody wrote in the affidavit that the Treasury 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 his identity.”
As a result, Cody wrote, “Downloading the document involved either impersonating the victim or lying about why the file was wanted.”
Licensing records are normally confidential under state law, but may be viewed 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, for example to lawyers for use in a legal matter; for the investigation of insurance claims; and for research projects on statistical reports with the caveat that personal information will not be disclosed.
Meyer said Zorn had in fact contacted the Department of Revenue before her online search and was told how to search for records. Zorn, asked to respond to allegations that she used Newell’s name to obtain Newell’s personal information, said: “My response is that I went to a Kansas Department of Revenue website and that’s where that I got the information.”
She added: “To my knowledge, there was nothing illegal or wrong.”
Rhodes, the newspaper’s attorney, said Zorn’s actions were legal under state and federal law. Using the subject’s name “is not identity theft,” Rhodes said. “It’s just the way to access that person’s file.”
The newspaper had Newell’s driver’s license number and date of birth because a source provided it, unsolicited, Meyer said. In the end, the Record decided not to write about Newell’s record. But when she revealed at a later town council meeting that she had been driving while her license was suspended, it was reported.
The investigation into whether the newspaper violated state laws continues, now led by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. State Attorney General Kris Kobach said he does not see the KBI’s role as investigating police conduct.
Some legal experts believe the Aug. 11 raid violated a federal privacy law that protects journalists from having their newsrooms raided. Some also believe he violated a Kansas law that makes it harder to compel reporters and editors to disclose their sources or unpublished information.
Cody did not respond to multiple requests for comment, including an email request on Sunday. He defended the raid in a Facebook post shortly after it happened, saying the federal law protecting journalists from newsroom searches makes an exception specifically for “when there is reason to believe that the journalist participates in the underlying wrongdoing”.
The Record received an outpouring of support from other news outlets and media groups after the raid. Meyer said he has attracted at least 4,000 additional subscribers, enough to double the size of his circulation, although many of the new subscriptions are digital.
Meyer blamed the stress of the raid for the Aug. 12 death of his 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, the paper’s co-owner. His funeral took place on Saturday.
Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri.
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