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State prosecutors add reporters to gagged witness list

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    NMU         KANSAS         Prior Restraints         Oct 26, 2000    

State prosecutors add reporters to gagged witness list

  • Two reporters interviewed a state lottery official facing criminal charges and now the state may ask them to divulge what he said.

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Maxwell added two newspaper reporters to a list of trial witnesses whom a local judge ordered not to speak with the media.

Shawnee County District Judge Thomas Conklin ordered from the bench on Oct. 10 that all attorneys and witnesses in the case were “not to discuss the matter in any way, shape, or form with the media.” Six days later, Maxwell submitted a document to the court adding reporters Dave Ranney of the Lawrence, Kan., Journal-World and Scott Rothschild of The Wichita Eagle to his witness list.

Mary Tritsch, the director of communications for the attorney general, refused to comment on why the reporters were added. Tritsch acknowledged that the reporters have not been separately interviewed and that it was fair to assume their testimony would derive from material they published.

Topeka lawyer Michael Merriam, representing the Journal-World, said he spoke with Maxwell two days before the prosecutor added the reporters. Merriam had just spoken with the judge, who clarified that his earlier oral order meant that “attorneys and witnesses are not to discuss the case, period.” After Maxwell heard the scope of the order, he added the reporters to his witness list.

Tritsch declined to comment on Merriam’s suggestion that Maxwell added the reporters to the witness list only after he heard of the breadth of the gag order.

“Well, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It certainly doesn’t pass the smell test,” Merriam said of Maxwell’s decision to add the reporters.

The principal case is the prosecution of Richard Knowlton, a former Kansas Lottery employee. Maxwell charged Knowlton in September with 268 counts of computer crime, theft and official misconduct. Knowlton allegedly altered the lottery computer system to read losing tickets as winners.

Ranney got an exclusive interview with Knowlton after he was released on bond. Knowlton claimed he had altered some tickets to prove how vulnerable the lottery was to fraud. Knowlton said he wanted “to shock” the Kansas Lottery into action after it refused to heed his warnings of security problems. Knowlton said he planned to drop $6,000 in falsely received lottery winnings on the desk of a lottery official. Knowlton said it was ironic that he was “prosecuted for the very problem which [he] brought to light.”

The media investigation began when former lottery director Greg Ziemak resigned his post, ostensibly to pursue other interests. Gov. Bill Graves initially insisted Ziemak resigned for personal reasons, but later admitted he fired Ziemak for a lack of control of the lottery division. The director of sales for the lottery was also fired.

While Ranney had significant access to Knowlton, Rothschild spoke with Knowlton only briefly on a few occasions and quoted him in two or three sentences.

Ranney said he believed the attorney general’s office was unhappy with the media for uncovering lottery problems. Lottery officials have been critical of the Journal-World since the newspaper published a photograph of Ziemak posing with four lottery employees wearing bras on their heads. Ziemak, who had at that time accepted a similar position in Connecticut, rescinded his acceptance after the photo was distributed in Connecticut.

Merriam said he had never seen such a sweeping gag order. More problematic, he said, the gag order was imposed in an oral ruling from the bench without a hearing or findings as to whether the order was necessary.

Kansas, unlike most states, does not have a reporter’s shield law that might block the reporter’s testimony. The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that disclosure will be required of a reporter in a criminal case only where the reporter’s information is material in proving an element of the offense or to a reduction of the charge or in mitigation of the sentence.

Ranney and Rothschild said the attorney general’s office has not served them with subpoenas. Knowlton’s trial is expected to begin in December.


© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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