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A conversation with the newspaper owner raided by cops

Eric Meyer says his paper had been investigating the police chief prior to the raids on his office and home.

Very few stories these days take my breath away, but this one did the trick: Cops in Kansas raided the office of local newspaper the Marion County Record Friday morning because of a complaint by a local restaurant owner named Kari Newell. She was unhappy with the outlet’s reporting on how she kicked out reporters from a recent event at her establishment with US Congressman Jake LaTurner (R-KS) and subsequent research they were conducting. The cops responded in kind, seizing cell phones, computers, and other devices necessary for publishing the paper after receving a signed search warrant from a judge. 

What has remained unreported until now is that, prior to the raids, the newspaper had been actively investigating Gideon Cody, Chief of Police for the city of Marion. They’d received multiple tips alleging he’d retired from his previous job to avoid demotion and punishment over alleged sexual misconduct charges.

The news of the multiple raids was reported Friday by both the paper itself and by nonprofit news service Kansas Reflector. After receiving an alert from the Kansas Press Association, Reflector Editor-in-Chief Sherman Smith said he quickly understood the gravity of the situation. “My immediate reaction: This is an attack on all journalists, and we have to respond,” Sherman told The Handbasket in an email Friday night. “My staff and I stopped what we were doing and directed our attention to reporting this story.”

I reached out to Eric Meyer, owner and publisher of the Marion County Record, late Friday evening to get his reaction to the unprecedented raids and to learn about any new updates in the case. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Marisa Kabas: I wanted to check in and see if there had been any updates since the raids yesterday.

Eric Meyer: We’ve pieced together enough equipment so that we'll probably be able to put out our paper. Our big question is how to get the material for it, which we don't have any of. I mean, I'm gonna have to go hunting to find the name plate for the front page.

But other than that, we're doing ok. Been in lots of talks with lots of lawyers. That's pretty much the long and short of it, I guess for now. Just getting started on rebuilding everything. So, we've got a bit of work to do with that.

MK: And what are the lawyers telling you right now?

EM: That the people who did this are going to learn a very expensive lesson. Their real question was, from a legal standpoint, was it more important that we get it [the newspaper’s equipment] back right now, or is it more important that we—for lack of a better word—stick it to them? We’re able to survive now, and I don't really want to stick it to anybody, but we need to have something that's big enough to convince somebody that you really don't do this. Not in America. This is not something that you do here. So, we'll be working in that direction.

MK: When the raids happened, were you at the office or were you at your home?

EM: I was at my home. I stay here with my 98-year-old mother and she was actually waiting for her meal to arrive from Meals on Wheels. And I thought when I heard the knocking, that was a meal person. I know they normally just leave it outside and no, it was a couple of police officers. 

I immediately tried to call the newspaper and I couldn't get through to the newspaper because they had raided them at the same time and forced them to go outside. So, although I did have a landline here—the advantage of living with a 98 year old woman is you've got a landline!—they couldn't answer at the Record

At the newspaper office, they'd been forced to leave the office. We weren't forced to leave the house here. But my mother is very upset about having police in her house for several hours. They stood here for a long time.

I got in the car and left to go down to the newspaper office. And actually along the way had to stop because I couldn't find phone numbers [since all his devices had been seized]. I wanted to call the attorney we normally use from the open government coalition that usually provides initial consulting for us, and I didn't have his phone number. So I actually stopped at somebody's house along the way and said, can I borrow your tablet to look up a phone number and then borrow your phone to make a call?  

MK: So when the police arrived at your door, what was initially running through your head?

EM: I had no idea what they were doing there. They said “we’re here to execute a search warrant.” And at that point, I kind of figured out what it was, because of the blustering that I'd heard from Kari earlier in the week. But, yeah, I didn't know quite what they wanted to do. I said, “guys, you're really making a very serious mistake here.” But what ran through my head was the old saying that when the police say something, you've got to do it. There's time to object to it later. Don't object to it then, or they can charge you with interfering with law enforcement. 

So I just told them that I thought they were making a serious mistake and they said they're just doing their jobs. And being a small enough town, I knew who they were. One of them was a part-time officer and he was wearing his bulletproof vest on the outside, and I know the new uniform requirements in the city, where they're supposed to wear it on the inside of their shirt. 

My mother got very, very, very, very upset about this and about that time her lunch did arrive, and she never did eat it yesterday. She refused to eat it. In fact, she refused to eat anything. She refused to go to bed last night. She sat up all night. She was very upset about this. They came into her home. She did nothing wrong.

MK: That's very upsetting, I can imagine. And what has it been like having all this attention all of a sudden?

EM: It's not wanted attention, let's put it that way.

It is kind of heartwarming: One of the things that I just noticed was we got this incredible swelling of people buying subscriptions to the paper off of our website. We got a lot of them, including some—I'm not gonna say who they're from—but one of them is an extremely famous movie producer and screenwriter who came in and subscribed to the paper all of a sudden. I mean, it's like, why are people from Poughkeepsie, New York and Los Angeles, California and Seattle, Washington and, you know, all these different places subscribing to the paper?

But a lot of people seem to want to help, and we've had people calling, asking “where can I send money to help you?” And, well, we don't need money right now. We just are gonna have a long weekend of work to do. But we'll catch up.

[At this point, Meyer explained the backstory as reported by his paper and the Kansas Reflector: He and his reporter Phyllis Zorn were kicked out of an August 2nd meeting at a local establishment with US Congressman Jake LaTurner (R-KS) by the City of Marion Police Chief after restaurant owner Kari Newell demanded they leave. Meyer and Zorn published a subsequent story about the hostile encounter, which infuriated Newell and prompted angry Facebook posts. 

The paper then received a tip about Newell having her license suspended in 2008 after a DUI, checked it out, decided not to publish it, and ultimately shared it with the local police because they believed it might’ve been shared with them as part of Newell’s ongoing divorce battle. The police then told Newell what the newspaper shared, and she attended Monday’s City Council meeting to make outrageous claims about the newspaper and one of the council members (who had also obtained the letter) violating her rights. She also called Meyer later that evening and erroneously accused him of identity theft. Not even four days later, police arrived at the newspaper office, Meyer’s home and the council member’s home with search warrants signed by a judge.]

EM: So the backstory that we haven't told, because we don't wanna get in trouble, is that we've been investigating the police chief [Gideon Cody]. When he was named Chief just two months ago, we got an outpouring of calls from his former co-workers making a wide array of allegations against him saying that he was about to be demoted at his previous job and that he retired to avoid demotion and punishment over sexual misconduct charges and other things. 

We had half a dozen or more different anonymous sources calling in about that. Well, we never ran that because we never could get any of them to go on the record, and we never could get his personnel file. But the allegations—including the identities of who made the allegations—were on one of the computers that got seized. I may be paranoid that this has anything to do with it, but when people come and seize your computer, you tend to be a little paranoid.

MK: I just wanna make sure I'm 100% clear: so you haven't reported on this before?

EM: We've gathered a lot of information. Deb, one of our reporters, has worked for weeks on this story. And we kind of didn't get anywhere with it. We tried to alert the city through backdoor channels that they needed to really look at his employment record. They said, “oh, we have,” and we talked to the Kansas City, Missouri Police where he was from, and the Human Resources Department said, “no, nobody's ever looked at his record.” Then two days later, somebody did look at it after they'd already told us they'd done so.

But the Kansas City Missouri Police HR Department told us, they [the city of Marion] asked specifically for only those things in which he [Cody] had been convicted and disciplinary action had been taken. And so that's all they gave him. This action wasn't completed. So that was where we kind of had to leave the story. They went ahead and hired him. 

MK: So you feel comfortable publicly saying that you would have been investigating the police chief?

EM: I wouldn't feel comfortable printing individual allegations, but it is true that we were investigating him and we had decided not to run anything at this point. We're not making any allegations against him, but we had investigated allegations. 

MK: Have you heard from Congressman LaTurner since the police raids?

EM: No, we have not. But again, it is so hard to reach us right now. Unless you have this landline [Ed note: we were speaking via his home landline that he’d provided via email] and I happen to be there, or the other landline [at the office] and I happen to be there. I haven't seen any email from them, nor have I received any calls from them. 

MK: With all the national attention, what should people outside Kansas know about Marion? 

EM: It’s a very small rural community. I worked at the Milwaukee Journal for 20 years and then taught at the University of Illinois. And they'd say, where are you from? And I'd say I'm from Kansas. And they’d say where in Kansas? And I'd say, if you've heard of any place in Kansas, it’s 60 miles from there. It's kind of out in the middle of nowhere. We are on the boundary of an area code. We're on the boundary of three zip codes. We're on the boundary between two TV markets. It's a farming community that also has some resort activities. We have a couple of lakes which in Kansas is kind of unusual. But mostly it's a farming community.

But other than that, it's like a lot of small towns. We are unusual in that running the paper isn't my livelihood. I mean, I retired from the University of Illinois. I still have a pension from the Milwaukee Journal. I haven't even taken my social security yet. And I don't take a salary, unless I take a bonus at the end of the year if we made any money from the newspaper. So I don't get regularly paid, and it's not my livelihood. 

I'm doing this because I believe that newspapers still have a place in the world and that the worst thing that a newspaper could do was shrink its reporting staff, stop reporting, fill itself with non-news when there's still news out there. And if you do a good job of providing news, you will get readers. 

We try to be aggressive with the news and we try to be fearless with the news because as I say, we're doing this because we care about the community. And that's one of the points I've tried to make, is that it's really hard to commit journalism properly with people who don't care about the community they're serving. 

MK: I just wanted to end with one last question: What do you think this raid on your paper and on your home says about the state of journalism in the country right now?

EM: I haven't been able to see enough of the outpouring from the people in this town. We've been getting incredible support from people outside this town. People in this town have been very supportive, but not publicly. And I talked to one person who said, “Oh, are you sure It's ok that I can talk to you because they might come and seize my computer?” They're afraid. They're really afraid that the police power is unchecked, and that they can be punished like this. And I think that's why I think it's important for us to fight this as much as we can, because it is destroying everything we're trying to do with democracy, which is to get people more involved. 

We've been trying to get people involved because people are afraid that if they step up—in a small town particularly—they will get squashed. Someone will knife them in the back. They will tell all their friends to stop doing business with them, or they will shun them, or they won't take them to the country club.

It’s a way to dispirit people from becoming involved in government by making them think that if you do, there's gonna be consequences and they're going to be negative. And in a community that's largely a lot of older people, a lot of them have said, you know, I've fought all the battles. I don't want to have a new battle that I'm dealing with. So they'll all complain about something, but they'll do it very quietly. We won't hear about it. 

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