Unsealed Affidavit Exposes True Motivation Behind 'Gestapo-Style' Raid on Local Kansas Newspaper

AP Photo/John Hanna

More details have surfaced related to the police raid on the Marion County Record that was carried out earlier this month. The case ignited a firestorm of criticism against law enforcement for what many are calling an infringement on the freedom of the press.

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Court documents revealed that law enforcement obtained the warrant for the raid due to suspicions that one of the newspaper's reporters committed identity theft to gain information about a local restaurant owner's criminal record:

The police chief who led the raid of a Kansas newspaper alleged in previously unreleased in court documents that 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The warrant, which the prosecutor's office has now withdrawn due to "insufficient evidence," showed that law enforcement found out that the reporter used the Kansas Department of Revenue's public website to verify a confidential tip she had received regarding Kari Newell, the restaurant owner, and her driving record. The reporter found that Newell had been convicted of driving under the influence and without a license. The newspaper did not publish a story about Newell's record. Instead, the reporter informed the sheriff and police chief about the matter when the restaurateur was seeking a liquor license during an August 7 city council meeting.

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The affidavit showed that Zorn's search of Newell's driving records was the primary impetus behind the raid on the newspaper.

In the affidavits, Marion Police Chief Gabriel Cody says Newell provided him with a written statement after she said she spoke with the paper’s publisher, writing “she says that on a phone call from 08/07/2023 at or around 1901 hours, Eric Meyer admitted to her an employee of his Phyllis Zorn downloaded the private DOR record information and that is why there would be no story. She stated Eric then threatened her ‘if you say anything I will print the story and will continue to use anything I can to come at you. I will own your restaurant.’”

Bernie Rhodes, the attorney representing the Marion County Record, argued that Zorn's actions were legal under Kansas law. He said using a subject's name to look up their record "is not identity theft," and doing so is "just the way of accessing that person's record."

The attorney also explained that the newspaper did not publish the information to avoid becoming involved with Newell's ongoing divorce proceedings. "We’d understood that the source may have — I emphasize may — have received this from the estranged husband, there was apparently a dispute going on over who should get the cars,” he noted. “We didn’t want to feel like we were being used in that battle."

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Another interesting development in this story is the criminal history of the judge who signed off on the warrant.

Days after law enforcement raided the Marion County Record, 12 News learned that the judge who signed off on the warrant has a criminal history.

Eighth Judicial District Magistrate Judge Laura Viar has two DUI arrests on her record. Both incidents happened in 2012 in Morris and Coffey counties. Viar, who went by Laura Allen at the time, was put on diversion for an arrest in Coffey County. Seven months later, she was arrested again for a DUI in Morris County while she was the county attorney. Viar (Allen) was not supposed to be driving since her license had been suspended for the first arrest.

According to a 2012 story published by WIBW, Viar (Allen) drove off the road and crashed into a school building while driving a then-8th district magistrate judge’s vehicle.

The officer's actions have raised concerns about the violation of press freedoms. The affidavit and the other facts surrounding the case paint a picture of a law enforcement agency being used to retaliate against a news outlet, which has caused great personal and professional damage to those working with the newspaper. Despite the police chief's protestations, the raid appears to have been intended to intimidate the reporters involved in the case. 

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Fourth Amendment concerns are also an issue in this story. The circumstances surrounding the raid could be problematic due to the evidence used to obtain the warrant. The fact that the prosecution withdrew the warrant seems to suggest the judge should never have issued it in the first place.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is looking into the case involving the newspaper. But so far, it does not appear that state law enforcement is concerned with investigating the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the warrant and the raid itself, which could have a chilling effect on other news outlets that publish inconvenient information regarding government officials and other members of the community.

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