Journalist Matthew Keys faces up to 25 years after guilty verdict in L.A. Times hacking case

Former Sacramento web producer maintains innocence, gets Twitter shout-out from Edward Snowden

The FBI wants you to know two things:

(1) Journalist Matthew Keys is going to federal prison.

(2) It has absolutely nothing to do with him being a journalist.

Keys is the former Web producer for Sacramento’s KTXL Fox 40, which, like the Los Angeles Times, is owned by the Tribune Co. Two months after he left the company, in December 2010, the feds say Keys gave his still-working log-in credentials to self-proclaimed members of the hacker group Anonymous, and told them to “go fuck some shit up.”

A few days later, a story on the L.A. Times website was futzed with, showing the altered headline: “Pressure builds in House to elect CHIPPY 1337.”

Administrators took it down after roughly 40 minutes, but the damage was done. Now, Keys faces up to 25 years in federal prison for his transgressions, though a U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman told the L.A. Times her office would likely suggest no more than five.

But that’s no comfort to Keys, who told SN&R he was innocent and that he was prosecuted because he refused to give up his sources.

“I did not commit the crime alleged,” Keys wrote in an email. “I worked as a journalist observing a hacker group, and when I refused to comply with an FBI request to have my computer scanned for their investigation into Anonymous, I became a criminal suspect.”

A jury didn’t buy that argument. On October 7, following a seven-day trial in Sacramento, it convicted Keys of three separate counts, all relating to the server-hacking conspiracy. After the verdict, U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Wagner released a statement that sought to dispel the idea that his office came down hard on a journalist who rebuffed them.

“Although this case has drawn attention because of Matthew Keys’ employment in the news media, this was simply a case about a disgruntled employee who used his technical skills to taunt and torment his former employer,” Wagner’s statement read. “Although he did no lasting damage, Keys did interfere with the business of news organizations, and caused the Tribune Company to spend thousands of dollars protecting its servers.”

A day after the jury’s decision, Keys told SN&R he went from feeling disappointed about the verdict to angry that the case was ever brought against him. “I think it’s clear to anyone who has followed the progression of events that this case was nothing more than the government’s attempt to send a message to journalists that if they do not comply with investigations into sources, they can face criminal prosecution,” he wrote.

Keys’ attorney told the L.A. Times they would appeal the verdict. He is tentatively scheduled to be sentenced in January.

Meanwhile, the verdict was met with an outpouring of reactions on social media, and was even tweeted by exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Perhaps that means Keys has a couch to crash on in Russia if he ever leaves the country. But it doesn’t sound like that’s the plan.

His boss, Levi Notik, co-founder of the online news outlet Grasswire, had this to say in a statement: “Matthew is a very capable and talented individual and we have no concerns about his integrity as a journalist. He will remain employed at Grasswire as the judicial process runs its course.”

Keys, who remains free on his own recognizance, said on Twitter that he would be back at work on Columbus Day.