A Kalama, Wash., councilman faces criminal charges for breaking into a co-worker’s email account while seeking to uncover what he believed to be corporate misconduct. from his colleagues.
Matthew Merz, 41, believed he unearthed emails showing a conspiracy between other city council members and the police chief. Court documents say Merz “discovered” a fellow councilman’s email password, gained access, and then reported multiple emails to a Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office deputy.
In January, Merz signed an affidavit about his actions, according to court documents, before facing a criminal investigation himself.
Two months later, Merz landed in prison. According to the sheriff’s office, deputies arrested him on suspicion of multiple counts of computer intrusion, electronic data theft and identity theft. Computer intrusion is a crime.
Merz has yet to be formally charged with a crime. His appearance is scheduled for March 17.
It is not yet known what Merz believed he had discovered. According to court documents, Merz found emails in a “police committee” file that he said showed advisers were “inappropriately conducting official business.”
Officials’ emails, with few exceptions, are in the public domain and available to anyone through Washington’s public records law. The OPB requested copies of the emails in question.
Whatever Merz showed the deputy does not prove any foul play on the part of his peers, the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
“During the writing of this report, Merz became involved in the unlawful access to the account of another member of the city council,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
Merz also told investigators that his colleagues “intentionally withheld” information relating to a cyberstalking case in which Merz was the victim. The suspect pleaded a civil offence.
Shortly after that January meeting, Cowlitz County Det. Troy Lee met with Kalama Councilman Jonathan Stanfill, the councilor whose Merz email account allegedly accessed.
“Stanfill was visibly upset and felt this was a serious breach of privacy and trust,” reads a probable cause affidavit. Stanfill never gave Merz access to his account. He also produced “recent activity” logs which showed that another IP address – later traced to Merz – had viewed his emails.
Detectives interviewed Merz on March 8, the documents show. Merz laid out his charges of wrongdoing and named Stanfill, Kalama Mayor Mike Reuter, and Kalama Police Department Chief Ralph Herrera. Merz admitted to accessing Stanfill’s emails in January, the documents show.
Reuters declined to comment for this article. Stanfill could not be reached by press time. Herrera called Merz’s allegations “baseless and patently untrue”, although he would not elaborate on what those allegations might be.
Kalama’s city counsel said in a statement that senior city officials, such as city administrator Adam Smee, will not comment on an ongoing investigation.
Merz also could not be reached for comment.
For the residents of Kalama, the incident could trigger an upheaval at the town hall. Under Washington law, a felony conviction is grounds for disqualification from any elective office.
The city council then meets on March 17, the date of Merz’s arraignment.