Attacks on the Press

A Reporter Is Suing a Kansas Town and Various Officials Over a Police Raid on Her Newspaper

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Photo by Scott Rodgerson via Unsplash

By The Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A reporter for a weekly Kansas newspaper that police raided last year filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against its hometown and local officials, saying the raid caused her physical and mental health problems.

Marion County Record reporter Phyllis Zorn is seeking $950,000 in damages from the city of Marion, its former mayor, its former police chief, its current interim police chief, the Marion County Commission, the county sheriff and a former sheriff’s deputy. The lawsuit calls them “co-conspirators” who deprived her of press and speech freedoms and the protection from unreasonable police searches guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Officers raided the newspaper’s offices on Aug. 11, 2023, as well as the home of Publisher Eric Meyer, seizing equipment and personal cellphones. Then-Marion Chief Gideon Cody said he was investigating whether the newspaper committed identity theft or other crimes in accessing a local restaurant owner’s state driving record.

But the lawsuit alleges Cody was “infuriated” that the newspaper was investigating his background before he became Marion’s chief in May 2023. It also said Zorn was on Cody’s “enemies list” for laughing off a suggestion that they start a rival paper together.

The raid put Marion, a town of about 1,900 residents about 150 miles (241 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City, at the center of a national debate over press freedom. Legal experts said it likely violated state or federal law, and Cody resigned in early October. Meyer’s 98-year-old-mother, who lived with him, died the day after the raid, and he attributes her death to stress caused by it.

Zorn’s federal lawsuit is the second over the raid. Former Record reporter Deb Gruver sued Cody less than three weeks after the raid, seeking $75,000, and the parties are scheduled to meet with a mediator in April, according to court records. Zorn’s attorney is Randy Rathbun, a former top federal prosecutor for Kansas.

“I’m certainly not anti-law enforcement because that’s what I did, but this kind of stuff just drives me crazy,” Rathbun said in an interview. “I know law enforcement, how they should react, and … this is not it.”

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation of newspaper, but it later had the Colorado Bureau of Investigation look into the civil rights issues. Their findings have not been made public.

The former Marion mayor, the sheriff and the county commission chairman did not immediately return telephone messages Tuesday seeking comment. Neither did Cody nor an attorney representing him in Gruver’s lawsuit.

Marion City Attorney Brian Bina said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment, adding that typically the city’s insurance company would later hire a lawyer. The amount sought by Zorn is more than the city raises annually from property taxes to help fund its budget, which was $8.7 million for 2023.

The lawsuit said before the raid, Zorn had seizures that were controlled by medication so that she had gone as long as five years without having one. Within days of the raid, the seizures returned.

“The seizures have been debilitating and have led to extreme depression and anxiety,” the lawsuit said.

Cody maintained that he had questions about how the newspaper verified the authenticity of a state document confirming that the local restaurant owner’s driving record had been suspended for years over a past drunken driving offense, according to documents released by the city in response to open records requests.

Zorn’s lawsuit said a tipster sent her a copy of that document and she and Meyer used an online, public state database to verify its authenticity. Meyer emailed Cody a week before the raid about the document and their verification.

The lawsuit said Zorn’s and Meyer’s actions were “clearly legal.” Cody and the city’s current interim chief were involved in the raid, as was the sheriff. The lawsuit says the former mayor authorized Cody’s investigation, and documents show that the former sheriff’s deputy helped Cody draft search warrants.

The lawsuit alleges the county commission failed in its duty to properly train the sheriff’s department to avoid civil rights violations.