Newly unsealed court records provide insight into how law enforcement justified a highly unusual raid of the office of a Marion, Kansas, newspaper – a decision that has drawn widespread condemnation from news organizations and press freedom advocates.
The Marion County Sheriff’s office said it was investigating “identity theft” and “unlawful acts concerning computers” when it searched the offices of the Marion County Record, the home of the paper’s publisher Eric Meyer and the home of a local city councilwoman – seizing computers, cell phones and other materials, according to unsealed search warrant affidavits.
In unredacted affidavits obtained by CNN, Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody suggested the raids were based on the belief that reporter Phyllis Zorn unlawfully obtained the driving records of local restaurant owner Kari Newell before the paper published a story about her.
But less than a week after the raids, Marion County top prosecutor Joel Ensey withdrew the search warrants and asked authorities to return the seized materials, saying “insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized.”
The driving records were first sent to Zorn by a woman named Pam Maag, who confirmed to CNN that she sent the documents, which she received from Kari Newell’s estranged husband, Ryan Newell.
Though the affidavit does not describe the contents of the records, interviews with Maag and the husband and a story published by the Marion County Record on August 9 suggest it showed Kari Newell drove without a valid license after receiving a citation for driving under the influence in 2008 while she was seeking a liquor license for her restaurant.
Meyer told CNN that Zorn downloaded Newell’s record to verify information she had received from a source. CNN has reached out to Zorn for comment but has not heard back.
Cody wrote that an investigation found Zorn downloaded Newell’s personal records from the Kansas Department of Revenue website – three minutes before someone using the name “Kari Newell” downloaded the records, according to the documents. Newell, however, told Cody she had not downloaded the information or authorized anyone else to do so, he wrote.
“Downloading the document involved either impersonating the victim or lying about the reasons why the record was being sought,” Cody wrote.
The sheriff provided a list of permitted types of records requests – appearing to be from the Department of Revenue website – which does not provide an option for journalists to request records.
“It is not a crime in America to be a reporter,” said Bernie Rhodes, the newspaper’s lawyer. “These affidavits prove that the only so-called ‘crime’ Chief Cody was investigating was being a reporter.”
Rhodes denied the threat against Newell and said the paper initially did not publish information about Newell’s driving record, concerned the paper was being used “as a pawn in a contentious divorce.” The paper later published a story mentioning the record after Newell accused it of illegally obtaining the record.
Newell told CNN she has previously received a DUI and entered a diversion program. When CNN spoke with her last week, she insisted she had a valid driver’s license and wasn’t prohibited from obtaining a liquor license because of the DUI. She has not yet responded to an inquiry about whether she drove without a valid license after the infraction.
The raid of the newspaper’s office was widely criticized as a major infringement on the Marion County Record’s First Amendment rights. Typically, law enforcement serves journalists with a subpoena when investigating a crime.
Rhodes and Meyer have said they are considering a lawsuit against the city.
Brian Bina, one of two Marion City Attorneys, told CNN the possibility of a lawsuit prompted outreach to the city’s insurance provider, EMC Insurance, who hired a private law firm, McDonald Tinker, to conduct an investigation.
Bina could not say when or if the results of an internal investigation will be made public.
Jennifer Hill, a McDonald Tinker attorney working on the case, declined to provide details of the investigation.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described who hired law firm McDonald Tinker to conduct an investigation. It was the city’s insurance provider, EMC Insurance.
CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe contributed to this report.