Kansas prosecutor says police should return computers and cellphones seized in raid on newspaper

Aug 16, 2023, 10:51 AM | Updated: Aug 17, 2023, 5:26 am

MARION, Kansas (AP) — A police raid that drew national attention to a small Kansas newspaper over threats to press freedoms wasn’t supported by evidence, a prosecutor said Wednesday, as the paper’s staff scrambled to print its first weekly edition since their cellphones and computers were seized.

Forced to rewrite stories and reproduce ads from scratch, the four-person newsroom toiled overnight to print Wednesday’s edition, with a defiant front-page headline that read: “SEIZED … but not silenced.” Under the 2-inch-tall (5-centimeter) typeface, they published stories on the raid and the influx of support the weekly newspaper has since received.

On Wednesday, Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey said his review of police seizures from the Marion County Record offices and the publisher’s home found “insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and the items seized.”

“As a result, I have submitted a proposed order asking the court to release the evidence seized. I have asked local law enforcement to return the material seized to the owners of the property,” Ensey said in a news release.

But in a statement released along with the county attorney’s, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation said it still is examining whether the newspaper violated state laws. A warrant for the raid, signed by a local judge, suggested the raid was over whether the paper improperly used a local restaurant owner’s personal information to access her state driving record online. Editor and Publisher Eric Meyer has said the paper did nothing illegal.

In Topeka, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, a conservative Republican who oversees the KBI, said its “principal interest” remains the computer access allegations. He told reporters he didn’t understand the KBI’s role to include “an evaluation of constitutional claims about the raid.”

The KBI said it would continue its work without examining any evidence seized last Friday. Once the state investigators finish, Kobach said, the county attorney will decide whether to prosecute.

Meyer said that the county sheriff’s office, which had been storing the items for the police, released them Wednesday afternoon to a computer forensics firm from the Kansas City area hired by the newspaper’s attorney. It is reviewing their files and programs to see whether materials on the devices have been copied, Meyer said.

“You cannot let bullies win,” Meyer said. “We have a staff that’s very experienced, including myself, and we’re not going to take crap.”

Meyer has said that the stress from the raid of his home caused the death Saturday of his 98-year-old mother, Joan, the paper’s co-owner.

Last week’s police raid put the town into the center of a national debate about press freedom, with watchdog groups condemning the department’s actions. Meyer said he believes the raid was carried out because the newspaper was investigating why the police chief left his previous post as an officer in Kansas City, Missouri.

Police Chief Gideon Cody left the Missouri department earlier this year and began the job in Marion in June. He has not responded to interview requests, and he did not reply to an email seeking comment about Wednesday’s developments.

Meyer said police seized a computer tower and cellphone belonging to a reporter who wasn’t part of the effort to check on the business owner’s background — but who was looking into Cody’s background.

Asked if the newspaper’s investigation of Cody may have had anything to do with the decision to raid it, Bernie Rhodes, the newspaper’s attorney, responded: “I think it is a remarkable coincidence if it didn’t.”

Meyer’s family has long published the newspaper in the town of about 1,900 among rolling hills about 150 miles (241 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City, an area that once was a sea of tall prairie grass. It’s known for its aggressive coverage of local politics, and some residents have accused it of driving businesses away, something Meyer dismisses.

Dennis Calvert, a 67-year-old Wichita resident and U.S. Navy nuclear submarine veteran, drove more than an hour to get a copy of Wednesday’s edition and sign up for a six-month subscription.

Asked about the role of local journalists, he said, “It’d be equal to, how important is your doctor if you’re going into surgery?”

At one point, a couple visiting from Arizona stopped at the front desk to buy a subscription, just to show their support, said Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, who was helping at the paper. Many others from around the country have purchased subscriptions since the raids. An office manager told Bradbury that she’s having a hard time keeping up with demand.

Even the White House weighed in. “This administration has been vocal about the importance of the freedom of press, here and around the globe,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at her daily briefing on Wednesday. “That is the core value when you think about our democracy, when you think about the cornerstone of our democracy, the freedom of press is right there.”

She said the raid raises “a lot of concerns and a lot of questions for us.”

To put out the Wednesday edition of the paper, journalists and those involved in the business side of the newspaper used a couple of old computers that police didn’t confiscate, taking turns to get stories to the printer, to assemble ads and to check email.

Because electronics were so scarce, it took the newsroom until 5 a.m. to finish the paper, Bradbury said. She chipped in herself by answering phones and ordering meals for staffers.

“There were literally index cards going back and forth,” said Rhodes, who was also in the office. “They had all the classified ads, all the legal notices that they had to recreate. All of those were on the computers.”

The newspaper’s press run is normally 4,000 papers. But since the raids, they have received more than 2,000 new subscriptions, Meyer said.

A warrant signed by a magistrate about two hours before Friday’s raid said that local police sought to gather evidence of potential identity theft and other computer crimes stemming from a conflict between the newspaper and the local restaurant owner, Kari Newell.

Newell accuses the newspaper of violating her privacy and illegally obtaining personal information about her, while the newspaper has countered that it received information about her unsolicited, then verified its authenticity through public records online.

Meyer said the newspaper ultimately decided not to write a story about Newell, but later reported about a city council meeting, in which Newell confirmed she’d had a DUI conviction and drove after her license was suspended.


Salter contributed to this report from O’Fallon, Missouri. Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed from Washington.


Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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Kansas prosecutor says police should return computers and cellphones seized in raid on newspaper