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Police chief took steps toward charges against journalists days after Kansas newspaper raid

Local law enforcement seized computers, cellphones and reporting materials from the Marion County Record office, the newspaper's reporters, and the publisher's home, on Aug.11, 2023.    (Mark Reinstein/ZUMA Press Wire/TNS)
By Katie Bernard The Kansas City Star

Marion’s police chief still worked toward criminal charges against a city councilwoman and two journalists in the face of an intense national backlash several days after he led raids on the local newspaper, as well as the homes of the paper’s publisher and the councilwoman.

Records obtained by the town’s newspaper, the Marion County Record, and provided to The Star show in the days following the raid Cody coordinated with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to consider charges against councilwoman Ruth Herbel and Marion County Record editor and publisher Eric Meyer, as well as reporter Phylis Zorn, for viewing the driving records of a local businesswoman.

“It’s just remarkable. Joan Meyer dies on Saturday and on Wednesday he’s trying to arrest Eric Meyer and the rest of these so-called co-conspirators,” Bernie Rhodes, an attorney representing the Record, said, referencing the death of the 98-year-old co-owner of the paper the day after the raid. Rhodes also represents The Star and The Eagle.

“He has no shame but he has the world’s largest ego,” Rhodes added.

Charges have not been filed against Meyer, Zorn or Herbel but the records show Cody remained focused on proving criminal wrongdoing even as he and his department faced widespread condemnation for the decision to raid the newspaper. The documents also show the level of communication between Cody and other law enforcement agencies before and after the raid was greater than previously known.

The draft affidavits, which Cody sent to a senior special agent at the KBI on Aug. 16 five days after the searches allege Herbel, Meyer and Zorn each committed identity theft, unlawful disclosure of division of vehicle records, and violated U.S. law on procurement of information for an unlawful purpose.

The draft affidavits also accuse Herbel of official misconduct, while accusing Zorn and Meyer of conspiracy to commit theft and computer crimes. Cody also accused Meyer of victim intimidation and Zorn of identity fraud.

Cody forwarded the drafts, which included evidence and statements obtained during the searches, to the KBI hours before Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey revoked the search warrants saying Cody lacked sufficient evidence. The revoked warrant could have impacted what evidence Cody could include in an affidavit.

The affidavits referenced the documents showing the business owner’s driving record as evidence of a crime committed, as well as statements from Zorn, Herbel and Meyer made while police were searching the newsroom and homes.

It’s unclear if police ever forwarded the affidavits to prosecutors for formal charges. Interim Police Chief Zach Hudlin and Ensey did not immediately respond to questions about whether the documents were forwarded.

Original drafts of the affidavits, which Marion County Sheriff’s Office Detective Aaron Christner sent Cody on Aug. 15 included fewer criminal charges than the drafts Cody ultimately provided to the KBI.

Records show Christner also drafted the original statements in support of search warrants and that the KBI was being updated on the case prior to the searches.

Cody resigned as Marion’s police chief early this month after city staff suspended him the prior week with no explanation. The embattled chief had come to Marion after leaving the Kansas City Police Department where sources told The Star he was facing demotion over comments he made to a subordinate. Prior to the raid, the Record had been investigating the reason for Cody’s departure from KCPD.

In his response to a former Marion County Record reporter’s lawsuit, Cody pointed the finger at other law enforcement agencies who were involved in the investigation that led to the search.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation has been in charge of the Marion investigation since shortly after the raid but has not publicly said it is investigating Cody rather than staff members at the paper. But the former police chief said in his filing that the KBI’s continued investigation was “a conflict of interest.”

A spokeswoman for the KBI said in an email Monday that the investigation was still ongoing.