This Kansas City reporter was laid off twice in a year—but her work has just helped change a state law

A long-sought open-records victory is also a personal redemption story

PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KS — The last two years have been a roller-coaster ride for Karen Dillon.

The award-winning veteran investigative journalist survived a Hunger Games-style layoff maneuver at the Kansas City Star in 2012, before getting the axe once and for all late last year. She was hired on a provisional basis in February as a producer at KSHB-TV in Kansas City, but lost that job too in May due to budget cuts. She is now writing on a contract basis for the local alt-weekly The Pitch.

But even through this career turmoil, her work itself is still making an impact.

On Tuesday, a new open-records law took effect in Kansas—a reform largely spurred by Dillon’s reporting, both at the Star and at KSHB.

“Today’s a pretty exciting day,” Dillon told me Tuesday. “It really changes the way we’re going to cover news in Kansas.”

The new law, which passed overwhelmingly in the legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback, opens up probable-cause affidavits for search and arrest warrants to the media and the public on request.

“This legislation marks a huge change in government transparency of court records,” said Kansas Sunshine Coalition President Ron Keefover, in a statement last month announcing that Dillon and others would receive the organization’s 2014 Friend of Open Government Award. “No longer may Kansas citizens be arrested or their homes searched without being able to examine the sworn statements of law enforcement officers that they are based on.” 

Across the rest of the country, this right is taken for granted. Proponents of the bill, in fact, said in testimony that they could find no other state in which such records were closed to the public.

Kansas’ restrictive rules dated back to the late 1970s, when the Topeka Daily Capital angered law enforcement by publishing the names of two men who were subjects of a police search. In response, the legislature pushed through an amendment to the state’s open-records law closing criminal records except under orders from a judge. Under the change, members of the public and the press would have to go to court if they wanted to view search and arrest affidavits, and also investigation and incident reports.

This law, born of an anti-media backlash, made it more difficult to report on crime and on police conduct—just as it was designed to do.

“Law enforcement and prosecutors just kind of thumbed their noses at us,” Dillon said.

Media and open-government lobbyists tried for years to reverse the law. “This will be the fourth time in the past nine sessions that we’ve pushed for this change,” Kansas Press Association executive director Doug Anstaett said as a legislative committee began taking another look at the issue in January. “It is a travesty that we stand virtually alone in the United States in closing these court records.”

Dillon had wanted to report on the issue for years as well, but, she says, her editors at the Star felt readers would not be receptive. 

“They said, ‘People will see this as self-serving; it’s a media problem.’”

The breakthrough came when a case emerged that proved it wasn’t just a media problem. After Adlynn and Robert Hartes’ Leawood home was raided by police searching for marijuana in 2012, the couple found that in order to see the probable-cause affidavit that led to the fruitless but invasive search, they would have to go to court—which they did. 

The strange case of the Hartes, along with the tragic story of Susan Stuckey, a mentally ill Prairie Village woman who was shot by police in 2010, provided the human face for Dillon’s front-page story in the Star on May 12, 2013, reporting that “no other state has such restrictive laws as Kansas when it comes to releasing criminal records.” Dillon noted in the story that while the Hartes and Stuckey’s mother were forced into long and costly court battles to see police records of the incidents in question, federal authorities had released charging affidavits in the then-recent Boston Marathon attack within hours as a matter of course.

This came as a surprise not only to readers but to contemporary lawmakers as well. “At least three state legislators interviewed by the Star did not realize how restrictive Kansas law is regarding criminal records and said the Legislature needs to revamp the law,” Dillon wrote.

One of those legislators was state Rep. John Rubin of Shawnee, a former federal judge. Such records should be open, he told Dillon, “unless law enforcement can provide a justifiable reason to keep records closed or sealed to protect an ongoing investigation for prosecution. That’s what I’m used to at the federal level. I’m surprised that is not the principle we are operating from in the state of Kansas.”

The discovery galvanized Rubin into action. In this year’s session, he was the author and unyielding champion of the reform bill that ultimately became law this week.

In the meantime, however, Dillon’s 22-year tenure with the Star had ended. Things had already soured back in 2012 when—in an incident that drew negative press nationwide—her employers had informed her and a colleague that one of them would have to be laid off, giving them both the chance to volunteer. The pair decided that Dillon would be the one to stay on, but her days were numbered; in October 2013 she herself was laid off.

At this point, Dillon says, she thought her storied career—whose highlights ranged from winning a Goldsmith Award to breaking the story of Pee Wee Herman’s porn-theater bust—might be over.

But she soon landed at KSHB as an investigative producer—and she had scarcely settled into her new post before she was back on the police-records story. Since her 2013 piece, there had been new developments: Rubin’s bill was moving through the legislature, and another sad case had emerged that illustrated the need for reform.

With KSHB reporter Melissa Yeager, Dillon crafted a three-part series in March, “The Dark State,” that looked at this case—involving Brenda Sewell, a woman who died in police custody last winter while detained in a western Kansas jail—as well as the Harte and Stuckey cases to illustrate “what can happen when records are restricted in Kansas.”

When the governor finally signed the new bill in May, the Kansas Press Association credited the KSHB series, along with the efforts of Rubin, transparency lobbyists, and papers across the state that had answered KPA’s call to promote the issue in editorials, with helping to push the bill across the finish line. The Kansas Sunshine Coalition will hand out awards to Dillon, Rubin, and the Hartes for their efforts at a ceremony later this month.

Still, Dillon notes, the battle for open police records in Kansas is “not over yet.” Of the three cases cited in the “Dark State” series, only the Hartes’ case would have been addressed by the new law. The mother of Sarah Stuckey and the sister of Brenda Sewell were seeking investigative reports, which remain closed to the public and the press in Kansas. The Washington Post’s Radley Balko offered other caveats, arguing that the bill still “leaves Kansas well behind the rest of the country on this issue.”

“This is a great big first step,” Dillon said, “but the legislature has to go back to the drawing board.”

For now, the passage of the law serves as a validation not only for Dillon personally, she says, but for her profession.

“It’s what journalism is all about,” she said, crediting the Kansas Press Association and its members as well. “It’s what we can do—if we’re given the opportunity.”

As she worked on her next investigative piece for The Pitch, Dillon reflected on what has been a tumultuous period in her life as a journalist. 

“You get to feeling pretty beat down, and wonder if you can do this anymore,” she said. “But I feel pretty good today.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee. Tags: , , , , , , , ,