NewsLocal NewsInvestigationsMarion

Actions

Marion Record reporter sues Gideon Cody, city and county employees for nearly $1 mill following newsroom raid

DSC_0079.JPG
Posted at 2:25 PM, Feb 06, 2024

MARION KAN. — A Marion County Record reporter has filed a lawsuit against Gideon Cody and several city and county employees following the August raid on the newspaper.

Phyllis Zorn is seeking a minimum of $950,000 in punitive damages.

Zorn would not comment on the case but directed the KSHB I-Team to her attorney in Wichita, Randall Rathbun.

READ THE LAWSUIT

Rathbun told the I-Team he's suing for nearly $1 million dollars, "so they don't do this again."

Rathbun continued, "This, to me, was just so outrageous. We just can't have people doing this."

Mayor David Mayfield

The lawsuit was also filed against Marion Mayor David Mayfield.

When asked why Mayfield is part of the lawsuit, Rathbun said Mayfield was a co-conspirator in the raid on the newspaper.

Gideon Cody, former Marion Chief of Police, raided the newsroom after Eric Meyer, the newspaper's publisher, informed him of a tip about a local business woman's driving record.

Both Phyllis Zorn and Ruth Herbel, then-vice mayor of Marion, received a tip that Kari Newell was driving on a suspended license. The tip was a letter from Kansas Department of Revenue addressed to Newell with stipulations on what Newell needed to do in order to reinstate her driver's license.

Zorn confirmed the information on KDOR's website, which the agency previously told the I-Team is public facing and legal to use.

Former Vice Mayor Ruth Herbel provided a copy of the letter to the city administrator, who notified Mayor Mayfield.

According to the complaint, Mayfield wanted to retaliate against Herbel and the newspaper for raising concerns about Newell's driving record.

According to the complaint, Mayor Mayfield and Zach Collett, a former city council member, contacted Newell stating Herbel knew about her driving record and planned to use it against her by denying Newell a liquor license for her restaurant.

However, Newell told the I-Team she's the one who contacted Mayor Mayfield after Collett contacted her.

"I asked David, 'I said, I'm really concerned that a council member is engaging in this behavior,'" Newell said.

Newell told the I-Team she asked Mayfield how Herbel could be removed from the city council, to which Mayfield responded the only way Herbel could be removed is if she was convicted of a crime.

Former police chief Gideon Cody

The complaint lays out allegations made against former chief Cody that the newspaper received from a tipster prior to the raids.

According to the lawsuit, "Cody soon became aware that the Record was looking into his background in Kansas City. This infuriated Cody and he later suggested to the plaintiff that she leave the paper and start a competing paper in Marion."

The complaint goes on to say Cody, "Promised her that he would invest with her and would enlist a number of others to do so as well. When Ms. Zorn disclaimed any interest in his proposal, she was moved to Cody's enemies list."

The KSHB I-Team previously reported Cody accused Zorn of illegally accessing a state website to obtain Kari Newell's driving information and that Cody's claims were inaccurate, according to Kansas Department of Revenue.

The complaint highlights this issue stating, "This webpage allows anyone to check the status of a Kansas driver's license so long as that person knows the driver's license number, first and last name, and date of birth of the driver they are checking on."

The complaint reiterates that Zorn did not publish the story. Instead, Eric Meyer, Record publisher, contacted Marion police and the Marion Sheriff's Department because he was concerned about how the original tipster got the information.

The KSHB I-Team reached out to Jennifer Hill, the attorney hired by the city who also represents Cody. Hill said she would not comment on pending litigation.

Marion County Sheriff

Marion County Sheriff Jeff Soyez is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

"On August 4, 2023, Meyer emailed Cody and Sheriff Jeff Soyez, and told them that a confidential source had provided the paper a letter from the Kansas Department of Revenue."

The complaint continues, "The email explained that the Record had checked with Department of Revenue and was told 'that anyone could obtain the document if he or she possessed the recipient's Kansas identification card number, name and date of birth.'"

Neither Cody nor Soyez responded to Meyer's email. The I-Team also requested emails and there was no evidence of any further correspondence after Meyer reached out.

Jeff Kuhlman, who represents the county, was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

The complaint claims Cody "...falsely stated that the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act applied to the KDOR letter and stated that in order to access the information someone from the Record had to lie about the reasons why the record was being sought."

The KSHB I-Team previously revealed Cody referenced a different website than the one KDOR confirmed Zorn used.

According to the complaint, Cody either lied or "acted with reckless disregard for whether they [his statements] were false."

The complaint references several comments made to the press by KDOR that verified the website was legal for Zorn to use.

The Raid

According to the complaint, Cody ignored the requirements of the search warrant that he conduct a "preview search" to exclude devices not used in his pursuit of proving the reporter committed identity theft.

The forensics searches done on Zorn's computer during the raid provided no evidence Zorn's computer was used for a crime, according to the complaint.

Cody and the sheriff's department seized her computer and several devices anyway.

"Cody's action in ordering the seizure of the four computers was in clear violation of the search warrant's requirement to conduct a review search. By seizing the computers of Eric Meyer, Phyllis Zorn, Deb Gruver and the network file server, Chief Cody seized all of the computers in the Marion County Record's newsroom, effectively shutting down the newspaper."

Cody also seized cellphones belonging to the staff that were not included in the search warrant, according to the complaint.

The complaint accuses Cody of destroying evidence, based on prior reporting by KSHB, which revealed Cody asked Kari Newell to delete text messages.

Damages

Zorn, according to the complaint, had several grand mal seizures in the days following the raids.

"She had a history of seizures but they were well controlled," Zorn's attorney told the I-Team. "She had a seizure two days after the raid and has continued to have seizures."

Separate from the lawsuit, Joan Meyer, 98, died one day after police raided the home she lived in with her son, Eric Meyer.

Joan Meyer died from sudden cardiac arrest.

Ron Herbel, Ruth Herbel's husband, has dementia. Ruth Herbel previously told the I-Team her husband's condition declined following the raids.

"This was a tremendously stressful event," Zorn's attorney told the I-Team.

Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, who signed off on the warrants, is not named in the lawsuit.

Judges and prosecutors are immune from civil litigation with few exceptions.

As of Monday, a KBI spokesperson told the KSHB I-Team the investigation is ongoing.