June 15, 2024

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

Marion County Record Publisher Eric Meyer speaks with reporters about the aftermath of a police raid on his newspaper's office and his home, Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Marion County, Kan. Meyer has fielded offers of help from around the U.S., and the Society of Professional Journalists has pledged $20,000 to the paper's legal defense. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

By JOHN HANNA and JIM SALTER Associated Press
MARION, Kansas (AP) — A Kansas prosecutor said Wednesday that he found insufficient evidence to support the police raid of a weekly newspaper and that all seized material should be returned in a dispute over press freedoms that the White House acknowledged it is watching closely.
“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.”
On Wednesday, Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey said his review of police seizures from the Marion County Record offices 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.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said Monday it was leading the investigation into the raid and what allegedly prompted it.
Even without the computers, personal cellphones and other office equipment taken in the raid, the small staff scrambled and were able to put out a new edition on Wednesday.
“SEIZED … but not silenced,” read the front-page headline in 2-inch-tall typeface. On Wednesday’s front page, stories were focused solely on the raid and the influx of support the newspaper has received.
Police raids last week of the newspaper’s offices, and the home of editor and publisher Eric Meyer put the paper and the local police at the center of a national debate about press freedom, with watchdog groups condemning the police actions. The attention continued Wednesday — with TV and print reporters joining the conversation in what is normally a quiet community of about 1,900 residents.
Meyer said all of the returned equipment will be forensically audited to make sure that nothing is missing or was tampered with.
“You cannot let bullies win,” Meyer said. “And eventually, a bully will cross a line to the point that it becomes so egregious that other people come around and support you.”
He added, “We have a staff that’s very experienced, including myself, and we’re not going to take crap.”
The raids — which the publisher believes were carried out because the newspaper was investigating the police chief’s background — put Meyer and his staff in a difficult position. Because their computers were seized, they were forced to reconstruct stories, ads and other materials. Meyer also blamed stress from the raid at his home for the death Saturday of his 98-year-old mother, Joan, the paper’s co-owner.
As the newspaper staff worked late into Tuesday night on the new edition, the office was so hectic that Kansas Press Association Executive Director Emily Bradbury was at once answering phones and ordering in meals for staffers.
Bradbury said the journalists and those involved in the business 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. With electronics scarce, staffers made do with what they had.
“There were literally index cards going back and forth,” said Bernie Rhodes, the newspaper’s attorney, 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.”
At one point, a couple visiting from Arizona stopped at the front desk to buy a subscription, just to show their support, Bradbury said. 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.
The raids exposed a divide over local politics and how the Record covers Marion, which sits about 150 miles (241 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City.
A warrant signed by a magistrate Friday about two hours before the 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 a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell.
Newell accused the newspaper of violating her privacy and illegally obtaining personal information about her as it checked her state driving record online. Meyer said the newspaper was looking into a tip — and ultimately decided not to write a story about Newell.
Still, 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.
Rhodes said the newspaper was investigating the circumstances around Police Chief Gideon Cody’s departure from his previous job as an officer in Kansas City, Missouri. Cody left the Kansas City department earlier this year and began the job in Marion in June. He has not responded to interview requests.
Asked if the newspaper’s investigation of Cody may have had anything to do with the decision to raid it, Rhodes responded: “I think it is a remarkable coincidence if it didn’t.”
Salter contributed to this report from O’Fallon, Missouri. Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed from Washington.