Kobach: KBI looking into possible data breach in Kansas newspaper case

White House expresses concern for raid. Magistrate who signed search warrant faces complaint.

By: and - August 17, 2023 11:37 am
Marion County Record reporter Phyllis Zorn and Sheriff Jeff Soyez stand outside the evidence room where an undersheriff signs over newspaper property to a forensic expert.

Marion County Record reporter Phyllis Zorn and Sheriff Jeff Soyez stand outside the evidence room where an undersheriff signs over newspaper property to a forensic expert. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach says state authorities reviewing alleged crimes associated with the raid of a Marion newspaper are interested in whether someone breached the Kansas Criminal Justice Information System.

Police raided the Marion County Record last week after the newspaper received information from a confidential source about the criminal history of a restaurant owner who wanted a liquor license.

In an interview with reporters Wednesday, Kobach said county officials asked the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to “get involved” after news of the raid brought widespread attention and scrutiny.

“The KBI was not, of course, involved in these searches and was not notified of the searches prior to their taking place,” Kobach said.

He said the KBI agreed to review the case because there were allegations of improper access to information in the KCJIS, and the KBI is the custodian of that system.

KCJIS is a secure system of connected data sources that supports the electronic exchange of information for local, state and national criminal justice interests. Access to KCJIS is restricted to authorized criminal justice agencies and non-criminal justice agencies with a need and right to know.

“That was another reason the KBI responded affirmatively to get involved,” Kobach said.

“Their role as I understand it is not an evaluation of constitutional claims about the raid,” he added.

Marion County Record publisher Eric Meyer
Marion County Record publisher Eric Meyer praises KBI director Tony Mattivi for helping arrange the return of newspaper property. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Marion County Record publisher Eric Meyer praised KBI director Tony Mattivi for his efforts to coordinate the return of property taken from the newspaper office. The computers, cellphones, hard drivers, router and other materials were signed over Wednesday afternoon to a forensic expert who is working for the newspaper. Meyer said he wanted to know whether authorities had accessed those devices after confiscating them in the Aug. 11 raid.

Magistrate Judge Laura Viar signed the search warrant that Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody used to seize the newspaper’s equipment, records about the restaurant owner, utility bills, and other materials. Police who searched Meyer’s home also took photos of his personal bank records. He lived with his 98-year-old mother, who co-owned the paper. The stress of the raid contributed to her death a day later, Meyer said.

On Wednesday, county attorney Joel Ensey said he had determined there was “insufficient evidence” to support the search and seizure.

PEN America, which advocates for free speech, said in a statement that the prosecutor’s decision and the return of newspaper property was “a first step toward accountability in this unconscionable breach of press freedom.”

“Local police tragically cannot undo the death of the newspaper’s 98-year-old co-owner, Joan Meyer, who collapsed and died after police rifled through papers and seized materials from her home,” the organization said. “Nor can the police reverse the damage that has resulted to the newspaper staff, its confidential sources, and the chill on press freedom writ large from the raid.”

State and federal law protects journalists and news organizations from police raids. Journalism advocates couldn’t find another example of police raiding a newsroom anywhere in the United States.

It still isn’t clear what evidence Cody provided to support the search warrant, or why Viar signed it.

Topeka resident Keri Strahler has filed a formal complaint against Viar with the Kansas Commission on Judicial Conduct, which has the authority to investigate allegations of judicial misconduct or disability in state courts.

Her complaint notes the legal protections for journalists and Ensey’s finding of insufficient evidence for the search.

“I humbly beg for your attention to Judge Laura Viar’s mental capacity in her decision to seemingly circumvent federal law,” Strahler wrote in the complaint.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday that the raid on the Marion County Record office raises “a lot of concerns and a lot of questions for us.”

She said freedom of the press “is the core value when we think about our democracy. When you think about the cornerstone of our democracy, the freedom of press is right there.”

“We’ll continue to reaffirm and protect this fundamental right enshrined in the First Amendment,” Jean-Pierre added. “And so, you can certainly count on us to continue to do that.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.

Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.