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Kansas to Probe Police Raid on Local Newspaper; Co-Publisher Dies from Stress Day After Raid

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The Kansas Bureau of Investigations has launched a probe into the shocking police raid on the newsroom of the Marion County Record and the home of its publisher and co-owner, Eric Meyer. Last week, police seized computers, hard drives, servers and phones. Eric Meyer lived with his 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, who was co-publisher of the family-owned newspaper. She died one day after the raids. We get an update from Sherman Smith, editor-in-chief of the nonprofit news outlet the Kansas Reflector, who was speaking to Joan Meyer on the phone as the raid was underway. “If the police in Marion County are allowed to get away with this, it becomes open season on journalists everywhere in Kansas,” says Smith. He discusses the reported dispute between the newspaper and a local restaurant owner who accused it of illegally obtaining information about a drunk driving incident, and how the paper had also been actively investigating Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody over sexual misconduct charges at a previous job in Kansas City. Details about that investigation were on a computer seized in the raid.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Kansas Bureau of Investigations has launched a probe into last week’s police raid on the newsroom of a local newspaper and the home of its publisher and co-owner, Eric Meyer. Police seized computers, hard drives, servers and phones.

Eric Meyer lived with his 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, who was co-publisher of the family-owned newspaper, the Marion County Record. One day after the police raid, Joan Meyer died at her home. The paper blamed her death on the police raid, saying it had left her, quote, “stressed beyond her limits.” At the time of her death, Joan Meyer was talking about the raid, saying, quote, “Where are all the good people to put a stop to this?” She died mid-sentence as she expressed outrage over what happened.

The raid reportedly stemmed from a dispute between the newspaper and a local restaurant owner, who accused the Marion County Record of illegally obtaining information about a drunk driving incident of its owner. But it appears the newspaper had also been actively investigating Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody over sexual misconduct charges at a previous job in Kansas City. Details about that investigation were on a computer seized in the raid. During the raid, the police chief injured a reporter’s finger while grabbing her cellphone out of her hand.

Over 30 news organizations and press groups have published an open letter to Marion’s police chief blasting the raid, writing, “Newsroom searches and seizures are among the most intrusive actions law enforcement can take with respect to the free press, and the most potentially suppressive of free speech,” unquote.

On Tuesday, I spoke to Sherman Smith, editor-in-chief of the Kansas Reflector, a nonprofit news outlet. He described speaking to Joan Meyer on the phone as the police raid on her home was taking place.

SHERMAN SMITH: The first call that I made Friday when I found out that this raid had occurred was to the the home of the publisher and his 98-year-old mother. She answered the phone, actually, when I called. But she was very upset. There was a lot of noise around her as police were rummaging through her house. She was having trouble hearing me, and so she told me she was going to have somebody standing near her and, you know, talk to me and let her know what I was trying to say. And then I heard a voice come on the line that says, “I’m Sergeant so-and-so.” And he had no interest in talking to me when he found out that I was a reporter.

AMY GOODMAN: And the next day she passed?

SHERMAN SMITH: Yeah. You know, the Marion County Record reported that she wasn’t able to eat after the raid began Friday morning. She wasn’t able to sleep that night. And early Saturday afternoon, in a conversation with her son, she apparently collapsed and died mid-sentence.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Sherman, if you can go back to the beginning and explain what exactly took place? You’ve got this paper dealing with two stories. And how did this raid happen?

SHERMAN SMITH: Yeah, there’s a lot of small town drama to unpack here, so I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible.

There was an incident in town where Congressman Jake LaTurner, Republican from Kansas, was holding a meet-and-greet at a small restaurant in town, had invited the media, but when the publisher and a reporter showed up from the Marion County Record, the owner of the restaurant, Kari Newell, asked police to throw them out because they weren’t welcome. She was not a fan of the paper. They wrote about this. And I should say that the congressman appears to be a sort of innocent bystander in all of this. The staff was apologetic. He came by and did a one-on-one interview with them later at their office.

But as part of the coverage of being thrown out of this, somebody contacted the paper and said, “You know, I have some information that might be of interest about Kari Newell.” And this confidential source provided information about her driver’s license history, a 2008 conviction for drunken driving, which was of interest because she was applying for a liquor license, and there was a question about whether this should preclude her from getting a liquor license. The paper — a reporter at the paper then typed Kari Newell’s date of birth and driver’s license number into a state database to verify the information they were given, did verify the information, but ultimately decided this wasn’t newsworthy, in part because they felt like they were being used as some sort of a pawn in divorce proceedings between Kari and her husband. So they decided not to publish, but they did notify police that they had received this information.

The police chief then notified Kari Newell that they had this information. Kari became upset. She made some allegations at a city council meeting last Monday that accused the reporters of some sort of illegal activity. That became the basis for an alleged crime here. The alleged crime is identity theft, that the reporter, by typing her information into the database, would have committed identity theft. I do want to say that all of the attorneys that I’ve talked to about this say that the reporter’s actions do not come anywhere near being a crime.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I ask you why —

SHERMAN SMITH: But the search warrant — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did Eric Meyer, the head of the paper — why did he call the police to say he’s not doing the story, but he had this information?

SHERMAN SMITH: He told me that he was concerned the newspaper was being set up, and so he thought police should have that information. And that then became the basis for the search warrant that was executed against them on Friday that’s alleging a crime of identity theft and improper use of a computer.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you explain what happened to the reporter? The police chief himself ripped the phone out of her hand, injuring her finger?

SHERMAN SMITH: That’s right. That’s what the publisher, Eric Meyer, told me. You know, they came in. They were taking computers and other documents. The search warrant allowed them to take utility bills, hard drives, the server that they had for even advertisements, legal notices, that sort of thing. And the police were taking phones away from — the personal phones away from reporters in the newsroom, and the police chief ripped the phone out of reporter Deb Gruver’s hand and apparently injured her fingers in some way.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you explain the second story that the paper was investigating, about the police chief himself, Sherman Smith?

SHERMAN SMITH: Well, when I talked to Eric on Friday, he told me that when the city had hired the police chief, the newspaper received a couple of emails from people who alleged some misconduct at his previous job. I believe he was a captain with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department. But the publisher told me Friday that the individuals who emailed them were not willing to put their name to the information and could provide no evidence to support it. They asked the police chief about these allegations, so he was aware that they had received this information. But the publisher, when I talked to him Friday, said he didn’t believe it was a credible story, because there was no evidence to support these allegations. And so, you know, it’s hard to say. I know he subsequently has told others that he believes this was possibly a motivation for the raid. But I just want to emphasize there was a clear motivation specified in the search warrant for why they were raiding the newspaper office. It’s not clear to me whether the emails they received about the police chief’s past really had anything to do with the raid.

AMY GOODMAN: Sherman, what’s known about the magistrate judge who signed the warrant?

SHERMAN SMITH: Yeah, in Kansas, magistrates, there are really not any qualifications. They don’t even have to be an attorney. In this case, Laura Viar is an attorney with an active license, a former county attorney in the county over, is the magistrate judge. I talked to her assistant Friday and asked if there could be some explanation for why the judge would sign what appears to be an unlawful search and seizure warrant, but didn’t get any response back. You know, we’re eagerly awaiting the release of the probable cause affidavit that would have supported the search warrant, to try to understand, you know, why any judge of any qualification, or not, would have signed off on this.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what this raid means for other newspapers, for other press outlets, for your own, for the Kansas Reflector? Talk about the significance of what took place.

SHERMAN SMITH: You know, the Kansas Press Association put out an email to members shortly after noon Central Time Friday that said, “We have an active situation here.” And in my newsroom, we dropped what we were doing and kind of leaped into action, because it just felt like a brazen attack on journalism everywhere, on what we do. And it has a chilling effect, because we depend on confidential sources to let us know what’s going on and to give us information, and they have to know that we’re not going to talk about them, and we’re not going to give their identity or disclose anything that would put them in jeopardy to anybody else.

If the police in Marion County are allowed to get away with this, it becomes open season on journalists everywhere in Kansas, where law enforcement would just need to fabricate a reason for suspecting a reporter of possibly committing a crime, as a justification for taking everything in the newsroom and looking for whatever stories we’re working on and who our sources are. That would effectively prevent us from doing our job of holding powerful people accountable and telling the public things that powerful people don’t want us to know.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us the story of the Marion County Record, the story of the Meyers, really, right down to Eric, who’s the publisher now, who just lost his mother, Eric, who was a journalist at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who was a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois. Go back to his father and mother.

SHERMAN SMITH: This is a 150-year-old paper, and his father began working there in 1948, worked at the paper for 50 years. The family has owned the paper since 1998, when they bought it to block the sale to a corporation, so that they could make it a — keep it as a family-owned, locally owned newspaper.

You know, I think there are papers in Kansas and small towns where the economic reality has just decimated the ranks of reporters. And there are places where police could have raided and found, you know, a single 20-something newsroom employee who was scared out of his mind and didn’t know what was going on, and the owner would be a corporation 20 states away.

Police picked the wrong newsroom in Kansas to raid, because, as you say, this is a family-owned paper, a publisher who had 20 years of experience at a large newspaper, then 26 years of experience at a journalism program at the University of Illinois, is basically running the family paper as a retirement hobby now because it is such a passion to him, and has a sizable staff, a remarkably sizable staff for a town of just 2,000. And he is defiant, insisting they will put out a newspaper this week, and they are fighting back.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach weighed in?

SHERMAN SMITH: He has not. We asked for comment on Friday. His spokeswoman seemed to be surprised that this situation was taking place, didn’t seem to know that it had happened yet. I think the attorney general is in a kind of untenable position for making a public statement, because he is statutorily obligated to defend public agencies, including police departments, if there’s legal action. So, if the Marion County police are sued, Kris Kobach, in his office, would be responsible for defending them in court. So it’s difficult for him to say anything now, knowing that it would then be held against him, potentially, in court.

AMY GOODMAN: Sherman Smith, before we go, what has been the response in the town of the raid on their local newspaper? And is there any push for the police chief to resign or to be fired?

SHERMAN SMITH: I think Kansans just don’t like drama, and I think a lot of the people in town, the ones that I’ve heard from, are just upset that they’ve become this flashpoint for controversy in a major national and international story. I don’t think they like the attention. You know, they like having a quiet, sleepy town. And that’s where they’re at right now. I don’t know that they’ve formed an opinion or if there’s an idea of whether they support the chief or not, but I think they would prefer the story go away.

AMY GOODMAN: And the police chief himself, has he been speaking out?

SHERMAN SMITH: He has posted on the department’s Facebook page. He says he believes the justice system will be vindicated when all the facts come out. He and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation director, Tony Mattivi, both of them have issued statements saying that the media is not above the law, which I just interpret as gaslighting, because nobody has suggested that the media is above the law. The reporter and the newspaper have been forthcoming about their actions. The question here is whether police can act outside the law.

AMY GOODMAN: And the city council?

SHERMAN SMITH: The city council’s next meeting will be Monday afternoon, evening, and we should get some clarity then.

AMY GOODMAN: Could they decide whether he remains the police chief?

SHERMAN SMITH: They certainly have the power to hire and fire the police chief, but nobody has said anything yet to suggest that that’ll be on the agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: I understand visitation for Joan Meyer will be held on Friday. A funeral service and burial will be held on Saturday. I think it sounds like, from the level of her stress as this was taking place not only at the office but at her home, that she saw this as the beginning of the demise of journalism. Is that fair to say, Sherman?

SHERMAN SMITH: Well, I think we can say that it’s a tragedy that somebody who had spent her whole life practically supporting news and intimately involved with the local newspaper, and the owner of the paper, spent the last 24 hours of her life having her home raided by police in a apparently illegal and certainly undemocratic attack on the free press. She wondered where are the good people supposed to be at right now. You know, it’s just a tragedy that that’s how her life ended.

AMY GOODMAN: Sherman Smith, editor-in-chief of the Kansas Reflector, a nonprofit news outlet. He’s been closely covering the police raid on the Marion County Record and the home of its owners.

Coming up, Democratic lawmakers are renewing calls for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to resign, after ProPublica published yet another bombshell investigation, this one showing not just Harlan Crow, but a group of conservative billionaires have showered Thomas with millions of dollars’ worth of vacations and jet flights and passes to sporting events. Stay with us.

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