Law enforcement officers in Kansas raided the home and office of a newspaper owner, prompting a sharp rebuke from a press freedom group and raising constitutional questions far beyond the small city in the state.
The paper’s co-owner and publisher, Eric Meyer, said he believes Friday’s raid in Marion – about 60 miles north of Wichita – was prompted by a story published Wednesday about a local business owner, while authorities countered they are investigating what they called “identity theft” in a search warrant.
Computers, cell phones and other materials were seized during the raid at the Marion County Record, Meyer confirmed to CNN.
At the time of the raid, Meyer said he was at the home of his 98-year-old mother, who died less than 24 hours later, he told CNN by phone Saturday evening. Police took Meyer’s phone, a computer router and an old laptop he hadn’t used in two weeks from the home, Meyer said.
Officials conducted the raid after Marion County Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar signed a search warrant Friday morning, which alleges violations of identity theft and “unlawful acts concerning computers.”
The search warrant identified a list of items law enforcement officials were allowed to seize, including “documents and records pertaining to Kari Newell,” the business owner who was the subject of the story, Meyer said.
The warrant also specifically targeted ownership of computers and devices or internet service accounts used to “participate in the identify theft of Kari Newell,” he added.
An attorney representing the newspaper sent a letter dated August 13 to Marion’s police chief, demanding the police department not review information on the seized devices until a court hearing is scheduled.
In the letter obtained by CNN, attorney Bernard J. Rhodes wrote the seized devices contained the identities of and information from confidential sources, which are protected by federal and state laws.
“Your personal decision to treat the local newspaper as a drug cartel or a street gang offends the constitutional protections the founding fathers gave the free press,” Rhodes wrote in the letter.
The letter was previously reported by The New York Times.
Rhodes told CNN on Tuesday he doesn’t believe the items seized have been accessed, citing tracking information from one of the devices as well as other information. The attorney declined to specify what other details supports his conclusion.
He added that he does not believe the newspaper’s reporters did anything improper or illegal.
The story behind the story
Earlier this month, Meyer said he was at Kari’s Kitchen, a coffee shop Newell operates, for a public meeting event with US Rep. Jake LaTurner, a Republican who represents the area. While it was a public meet-and-greet event, Meyer said he and his reporter, Phyllis Zorn, were asked to leave.
“I was standing in line waiting to get a drink at the coffee shop where we were and the police chief came up to us and said you’ve been asked to leave by the coffee shop owner,” Meyer said. “She said we don’t want the media in here, so they threw us out.”
CNN has reached out to LaTurner’s office about the situation.
Meyer said Zorn then received a tip about Newell allegedly driving without a valid driver’s license after a traffic offense in 2008.
Newell confirmed to CNN that she had asked Meyer and his reporter to leave during the public meet-and-greet event with Rep. LaTurner because she believes the newspaper “has a long-standing reputation for twisting and contorting comments within our community.”
“When they came into the establishment, I quietly and politely asked them to exit,” Newell said. “I didn’t feel that their constituents needed to be exposed to any risk of being misquoted.”
Newell said the Marion County Record unlawfully used her credentials to get information that was only available to law enforcement, private investigators and insurance agencies. “Not only did they have information that was illegal for them to obtain in the manner in which they did, but they sent it out as well,” she added.
The Marion County Record published the article “strictly out of malice and retribution for me asking him to exit my establishment,” she says.
Newell was out of state when she learned of Friday’s raid, she says, and tells CNN she was “flabbergasted” and “didn’t know that was coming.”
Meyer said he drove down to the office where law enforcement officials seized a file server, a backup drive for a file server, Meyer’s computer and the computers of two other reporters.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, not in America,” Meyer said. “This was an atomic flyswatter. They wanted to swat us, and they tried to do so.”
“Our problem is, we don’t have any of our logs of advertising, the ads that were prepared, and things that were ordered,” Meyer said as he expressed his concerns for not being able to publish his weekly newspaper on time.
Two reporters – Zorn and Deb Gruver – whose computers were seized also had their phones taken away, according to Meyer.
“As far as I can see, the entirety of law enforcement in Marion County was involved in this,” Meyer said. He explained all four employees from the Marion Police Department, including the police chief, came.
Marion Police Department Chief Gideon Cody was not able to provide details on Friday’s raid, saying it remains an ongoing criminal investigation – but offered a justification.
“I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated,” Chief Cody told CNN in a statement. “I appreciate all the assistance from all the state and local investigators along with the entire judicial process thus far.”
Cody explained in most cases, police are required to use subpoenas rather than search warrants to search the premises of journalists “unless they themselves are suspects in the offense that is the subject of the search.”
Cody added while the Federal Privacy Protection Act protects journalists from most searches of newsrooms by federal and state law enforcement officials, there are certain exceptions in limited circumstances where a subpoena is not needed, including “when there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing.”
According to Meyer, law enforcement officials did not provide an explanation of why they were being raided. He said he was given a copy of the search warrant after the search.
Meyer tried to obtain a probable cause affidavit that would support the search warrant, he said, but the judge who issued the search warrant responded in a letter there was no such probable cause warrant in her office.
CNN has reached out to Marion County Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, who signed the search warrant, and Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, who oversees the Kansas Bureau of Investigation that confirmed to CNN the newspaper’s records are being investigated.
“The Marion Police Department and the Marion County Attorney asked the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to join an investigation into the illegal access and dissemination of confidential criminal justice information,” the agency’s communications director Melissa Underwood told CNN.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is now the lead law enforcement agency looking into the incidents in which police raided the Meyer’s office and the home, the bureau told CNN on Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear whether the probe is looking into the actions of police, the allegations of identity theft or both. A spokesperson declined CNN’s request for details about what the agents are examining.
Paper considers its next steps
“What I want is, I don’t want anybody else to have this happen to them,” Meyer said. “We’re going to pursue this to the full extent that we’re allowed to by law and hopefully, that may result in some changes in personnel have been involved in this.”
Meyer is also thankful for the outpouring of support and offers of assistance. He said he’s receiving a number of phone calls from other news organizations, even competitors, willing to help and donate computers and equipment to get their next weekly newspaper published by Tuesday night for distribution on Wednesday.
“We weren’t going to let a 154-year-old tradition of publishing every week go down just because some cops decided to come in and do something to us,” said Meyer, who has been a co-owner of the Marion County Record since 1998. Meyer is also a former journalism professor at the University of Illinois, according to his online biography.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation released a statement in response to Friday’s incident, saying the raid appears to have violated federal law and is “the latest example of American law enforcement officers treating the press in a manner previously associated with authoritarian regimes.”
“Based on the reporting so far, the police raid of the Marion County Record on Friday appears to have violated federal law, the First Amendment, and basic human decency. Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves,” said Seth Stern, director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation.
CNN’s Whitney Wild contributed to this report.