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New evidence questions Collett’s role

Staff writer

Newly obtained evidence is casting doubt on city council member Zach Collett’s protestations of not being involved in the run-up to raids Aug. 11 on the Record’s newsroom and homes of its co-owners and Vice Mayor Ruth Herbel.

At a city council meeting Monday night, Collett suggested that he had done nothing wrong in being the first to contact restaurant owner Kari Newell about revelations regarding her driving record.

However, messages he sent to Newell at the time indicate more than he let on, including a strategy of attempting to blame the newspaper and of scripting an exchange that would expose how Newell’s driving record had been revealed.

The afternoon of Aug. 4, City Administrator Brogan Jones sent Mayor David Mayfield an email stating that Herbel had obtained a document from Newell’s former friend, Pam Maag, indicating that Newell had been driving without a license for more than a decade because of an unresolved conviction for driving under the influence.

That email, Jones and council members have said, was blind copied to all other council members except Herbel.

Unknown by city officials at the time was that the newspaper also had received the same information.

The newspaper informed Police Chief Gideon Cody and Sheriff Jeff Soyez later that day, but Cody has stated in a sworn affidavit that he did not read the newspaper’s message until three days later.

The same day that Cody read the message, Collett wrote to Newell, telling her that her license request would be challenged by Herbel even though the note from Jones had said only that Herbel had asked for police to investigate the matter.

The note also stated that Jones had decided police should not investigate and instead should leave the matter as a question for state licensing authorities.

After Cody read the newspaper’s note, Collett sent this message to Newell:

“Hey, Kari, I wanted to give you a heads-up so you’re not caught off guard tonight. Ruth has brought up something about a DUI and is trying to say that we should not issue you a liquor license due to this. As far as I know, a DUI does not affect ability to get a liquor license, and I will be very vocal about this.”

Although Cody claimed otherwise in a sworn affidavit, nothing in Jones’s note had stated that Herbel was challenging the license, only that she thought police should investigate.

Collett did not admit it Monday night, but his note Aug. 7 to Newell added Record editor and publisher Eric Meyer to the list of people he supposedly was warning Newell about.

“I believe this is her (and Eric’s) attempt to get back at you from last week,” he wrote.

On Aug. 1, Newell had asked Cody to eject Meyer and reporter Phyllis Zorn from an open, public meeting at her coffee shop with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner.

The newspaper had been specifically invited to the meeting by LaTurner’s staff.

In his exchange Aug. 7 with Newell, Collett went on to explain how he planned to script a city council meeting scheduled for later in the day.

“I am not going to bring anything up unless Ruth does first,” he wrote. “Then I will question how she obtained info (which I don’t know).”

That was a not true. Jones’s note three days earlier had explained precisely how Herbel had obtained the information.

Either way, Collett at minimum hinted to Newell that there might be questions about how the information was obtained.

Newell next was contacted by Cody, who told her — without her ever making a complaint — that she had been the victim of a crime because her license information had been obtained illegally.

It later was verified by the state that the information obtained was an open, public document, freely available to anyone.

At this week’s city council meeting, Collett was asked point-blank whether he had told Newell about the document Herbel had received.

He did not answer the question directly, saying only that he was not in possession of a copy of the document at that time.

Although he did not specifically reference the document in his note to Newell, he did hint to her that there was some question — to which he already knew the answer — about how Herbel had obtained the information.

How the newspaper figured in his discussions with Newell is less clear unless there was communication with Cody or someone to whom Cody had confided in about the Record having received the same information.

Under the Kansas Open Records Act, the Record has requested copies of all communication among city officials regarding the case.

That request still has not been granted even though out-of-town news outlets have begun receiving hundreds of emails they requested at approximately the same time.

Last modified Oct. 4, 2023

 

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