Kansas seeks KMBC video of women suing Highway Patrol leader

neil nakahodo

The Kansas City Star

Kansas Highway Patrol Superintendent Herman Jones and the state have issued a subpoena to KMBC-TV in Kansas City to obtain unaired footage of interviews with women who accused Jones and the agency of misconduct, a lawsuit that sparks concerns about freedom of the press.

The station’s subpoena seeks recordings of any interviews conducted with the women, according to court records. The subpoena orders the station to produce the recordings “whether audio, video, written or otherwise,” which could include not only the video, but also the reporters’ notes.

The subpoena was issued despite a Kansas law designed to protect journalists from having to disclose unpublished material. It was filed less than a month ago by Gaye Tibbets, a Wichita-based attorney defending Kansas and Jones. in the lawsuit.

Five women, all current or former Highway Patrol employees, are suing the state of Kansas; Jones, a former Shawnee County sheriff who was appointed to lead the agency in March 2019 by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly; and Jason De Vore, assistant superintendent of the Highway Patrol. In a lawsuit filed in February 2021, they alleged a hostile work environment, a culture of sexual harassment, and gender discrimination.

Subpoenas to news organizations are rare, though not unprecedented, but journalists often reject them. Kansas has what is commonly called a “protection law” that protects journalists from having to turn in stories and other unpublished material related to newsgathering. The party requesting the disclosure must set a high bar for a court to order the disclosure.

“The subpoena that was issued in this case is curious because it’s well established that such information is protected under journalist’s privilege,” said Max Kautsch, a Lawrence attorney who focuses on First Amendment law and is president of Kansas. Coalition for Open Government. .

“The Legislature passed this law nearly 15 years ago for the express purpose of insulating journalists from misguided attempts to prosecute them.”

When KMBC reported in February 2021 that current and former employees were suing, the station aired interviews with some of the women without naming them. The women appeared on camera in silhouette and their voices appeared to have been altered, and KMBC said the women feared reprisals within the Highway Patrol.

At the time, KMBC reported that some of the women said their superiors had asked them if they had given TV interviews. While KMBC and other news organizations, including The Star, have generally not identified the women, they are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Tibbets told The Star on Monday that lawyers for the defendants were negotiating with KMBC over the subpoena. She said there are disputes with the station, but she did not elaborate.

The KMBC subpoena is one of more than a dozen issued by the defendants as the lawsuit progresses, with most issued in the past month.

“Only routine discovery, as the women who had sued KHP testified that they gave recorded interviews” to KMBC, Tibbets said.

Multiple calls and emails to KMBC President and General Manager Justin Antoniotti were not returned.

Six women originally sued the Highway Patrol, though one has since been dismissed from the lawsuit. The lawsuit followed two state investigations, including one by an outside law firm, which concluded that the women’s claims against Jones for gender discrimination and inappropriate touching and comments were without merit. While an investigation concluded unwanted touching occurred, investigators said they couldn’t confirm it was sexual in nature.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office retained the Tibbets law firm to represent Jones and the state in the lawsuit. John Milburn, a spokesman for the Republican attorney general, said the firm exercises “operational control over the litigation.”

A Highway Patrol spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

In a court document, Tibbets said the women who sued the Highway Patrol “failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm.” The employment actions taken by Jones and the state were taken for “legitimate, non-discriminatory or non-retaliatory reasons,” the document says.

An attorney for the women did not respond to a request for comment.

A pretrial conference in the case is scheduled for December 1. In October, Magistrate Judge Angel D. Mitchell, at the defendants’ request, agreed to waive the mediation deadline that had been set for Wednesday.

In a court document, Tibbets wrote that the defendants believed mediation would be unsuccessful “both because of their confidence in their legal defenses and because the process for funding a state-funded settlement agreement involves the approval of multiple layers of officials.” government and it is time to -consumer and cumbersome.”

The five women’s lawsuit is one of a series of legal challenges facing the Highway Patrol amid years of controversy over its leadership and culture. Former Highway Patrol Commanders Scott Harrington and Josh Kellerman in December 2020 filed a federal lawsuit alleging they faced retaliation for supporting the women.

Harrington alleged that Jones gave him a choice between resigning or being fired and that he resigned. Kellerman alleged that Jones gave him a prepared letter of resignation for him to sign, which he signed.

In a court filing, Jones and the state of Kansas have denied retaliating against Harrington and Kellerman.

Mark Bruce, a former Highway Patrol superintendent, also filed a lawsuit. Bruce was appointed by former Republican Governor Sam Brownback, but Kelly retained him. He resigned under pressure in March 2019, just three months after Kelly took office amid questions about an alleged domestic violence incident involving another top agency official. Kelly then appointed Jones to run the agency.

Bruce wants the Highway Patrol to rehire him at the rank of major, and has argued in court that Kansas law requires former Highway Patrol superintendents to revert to the same rank they held when they took over the job. agency.

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Jonathan Shorman is the lead political reporter for The Kansas City Star, covering Kansas and Missouri politics and government. He previously covered Kansas Statehouse for The Star and Wichita Eagle. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas.

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