"No one was hurt, there were no lasting injuries, no one's identify was stolen, lives weren't ruined," said Matthew Keys' attorney, Jay Leiderman. "It was a joke, and I guess a joke will get you 25 years in prison."
Federal authorities allege that in December 2010, Keys provided hackers from the group Anonymous with login information to access the computer system of the Tribune Co., the parent company of the Times. Tribune also owns a Sacramento television station Keys was fired from months earlier.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, a hacker altered a Times news story to read "Pressure builds in House to elect CHIPPY 1337," a reference to another hacking group. "Chippy 1337" claimed responsibility for defacing the website of video game publisher Eidos in 2011.
A second attempt to hack the Times was unsuccessful, according to an indictment released Thursday.
Keys was charged with one count each of conspiracy to transmit information to damage a protected computer, as well as transmitting and attempting to transmit that information. If convicted, the New Jersey native faces a combined 25 years prison and a $500,000 fine if sentenced to the maximum for each count. He is scheduled for arraignment April 12 in Sacramento.
"It's astounding that we would use our laws and scarce prosecutorial resources in this manner," Leiderman told The Associated Press on Friday.
"In the wake of the Aaron Swartz case, we really thought that Justice would kind of catch their breath and maybe understand that they had erred in pushing these cases forward in such an aggressive manner for what are essentially pranks," Liederman said. "I guess what Justice has done is kind of double down on it."
He was referring to the 26-year-old Internet activist who was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment Jan. 11 as a trial loomed in his future.
Family and friends say Swartz killed himself after he was hounded by federal prosecutors. Officials say he helped post millions of court documents for free online and that he illegally downloaded millions of academic articles from an online clearinghouse.
The indictment of Keys, also 26, comes after recent hacks into the computer systems of two other U.S. media companies that own The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Both newspapers reported in February that their computer systems had been infiltrated by China-based hackers, likely to monitor media coverage the Chinese government deems important.
Anonymous and its offshoot, Lulz Security, have been linked to a number of high-profile computer attacks and crimes, including many that were meant to embarrass governments, federal agencies and corporate giants. They have been connected to attacks that took data from FBI partner organization InfraGard, and they've jammed websites of the CIA and the Public Broadcasting Service.
Keys' Facebook page says he worked as an online news producer for Tribune-owned FOX affiliate KTXL from June 2008 to April 2010.
Investigators allege that Keys then gave a hacker named "Sharpie" the login information in an Internet chat room frequented by hackers and urged the hacker to do some damage to the Tribune Co.
Federal prosecutors allege in court papers that a legendary hacker and Anonymous leader named "Sabu" offered advice on how to infiltrate Tribune's systems. The FBI unmasked Sabu when it arrested Hector Xavier Monsegur on June 7, 2011. Monsegur secretly worked as an FBI informant until federal officials announced that he helped them arrest five other alleged hackers on March 6, 2012.
Federal officials declined to comment on whether Sabu assisted in the investigation of Keys.
The day after it was announced that Sabu was an FBI informant, Keys wrote a story for Reuters about "infiltrating" the hackers' chat room.
Reuters had hired Keys in 2012 as a deputy editor for social media. David Girardin, a spokesman for the news agency, told AP in an email Friday that Keys was suspended Thursday with pay. He did not elaborate.
A spokesman for the Chicago-based Tribune Co. declined to comment.
According to Keys' Facebook profile, he is single, lives in New York City and works at Reuters' New York office, where "I get paid to use Twitter and Facebook at work."
Reuters, a unit of New York-based Thomson Reuters Corp., has been expanding its business in the United States. This year, six of the Tribune's seven newspapers dropped The Associated Press for Reuters, citing cost savings. The Los Angeles Times stayed with AP.
Follow Garance Burke and Paul Elias at http://twitter.com/garanceburke and http://twitter.com/paulelias1 .
AP National Writer Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz also contributed to this report.