How one man’s actions led to proposed new limits on public-records access
A Navy veteran who says he has PTSD is the man responsible for triggering proposed new restrictions on Iowans’ access to government documents.
The individual, Michael J. Merritt of Newton, calls himself “Cipher Hunter” and describes himself as a “creative writer/musician and information warfare specialist.” In the lengthy, stream-of-consciousness missives he has sent to public officials over the past year, he has incorporated jokes, anecdotes, details of his marital troubles and brief works of fiction into his public-records requests.
He wrote to one state official earlier this year and explained that he had “been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to multiple false allegations of criminal conduct going back to January 2017.”
Last month, he filed almost three dozen complaints with the Iowa Public Information Board, each alleging violations of Iowa’s Open Records Law. Merritt’s actions prompted IPIB’s executive director to urge the board to take action, calling it a “potential immediate crisis” that could quickly consume all of IPIB’s resources by forcing the board to investigate each of Merritt’s complaints.
Within days, IPIB quickly rejected all of Merritt’s complaints, but then began considering proposed legislation that would enable state agencies, as well as Iowa’s cities, counties and school districts, to ignore for up to one year any public-records requests generated by individuals deemed by the board to be the work of a “vexatious requester.”
IPIB Executive Director Erika Eckley has said that while the proposed bill was prompted by the actions of one individual, she believes it’s not “a one-person issue” in Iowa. The Iowa Capital Dispatch was unable to reach Merritt for comment.
Some board members have already expressed reservations with the proposal, noting that government agencies can pursue harassment charges or seek injunctive relief through the civil courts.
“If the board considers taking this up, I anticipate being vehemently opposed,” said former board chairwoman Julie Pottorff, a former assistant attorney general at Thursday’s IPIB meeting. “I think (agencies) already have a remedy… I don’t see any reason why a lawful custodian of records couldn’t get an injunction from the district court if they think they’re being overly pelted by requests.”
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said he appreciates the concerns raised by Eckley and others, but added that it seems “very unwise to make such a significant change in the public records law based, it appears, on one individual’s requests.”
“There are legal options already available to officials — options that do not involve creating a loophole in Iowa’s public records law that some in government might try to use to silence people who request records government is not eager to share,” he said.
‘A man with wild hair and in pajamas’
Records obtained by the Iowa Capital Dispatch from IPIB suggest Merritt has long been a thorn in the side of public officials, particularly in Jasper County and the city of Newton.
In October 2019, for example, the Jasper County attorney’s victim-witness coordinator, Erika Sheeder, wrote to others in the prosecutors’ office to let them know Merritt had been in the office insisting that charges be filed in a case involving another person’s alleged violation of a no-contact order. “He’s a little unhinged,” Sheeder wrote. “This guy is pissed, and he gives us a weird vibe.”
In April of this year, Jasper County’s information-technology director, Ryan Eaton, wrote to Merritt in response to a visit Merritt had made to his office. Eaton wrote: “I did not respond to your rambling on Monday because I do not begin to understand where you were going with your thought process … I have no idea who ‘the Baptist standing in dirty water’ refers to so I am unable to share your words with them … I did go to my office and ignore you. I was not really sure how to handle a man with wild hair and in pajamas following me through the courthouse with a camera asking why I am being mean to him.”
At the time, Merritt was reportedly upset that the county had blocked him from posting comments to the Jasper County Facebook page. “The day you started stalking county employees and mapping their locations and times, I received several phone calls complaining and asking me to stop it,” Eaton wrote.
By the time of that exchange, Merritt had already spent the better part of a year filing public-records requests with various Iowa agencies in an effort, he wrote, to “boldly serve the Son of Man while I pursue deceit and tyranny in the darkness of the caves of Afghanistan” – an apparent reference to his past military service.
In June 2022, Merritt sent a record request to the City of Camanche, but as an attachment to an email. The request was denied with the city saying asking Merritt to simply copy the text of his request into the body of an email to reduce the city’s risk of a virus or malware attack.
Merritt responded with a lengthy email instructing the city to have the police chief scan his attachment for security issues and to then file criminal charges against him once the “malicious code you allege exists” was found. “I was not groomed in a law office,” he wrote. “I was built at sea during 20 years of service by the United States Navy Chief’s Mess.”
‘Panic attacks in a veteran diagnosed with PTSD’
In October 2022, Merritt asked the city of Newton to send him “the official portraits” of 10 city officials, which were already available online, as well as “city council multimedia files” that the city couldn’t provide as it wasn’t clear what was being requested.
In June of this year, he sent an email to dozens of public officials in Iowa referencing “false allegations of sexual abuse” made by others who were attempting to “destroy my life.” He complained of unnamed public officials “causing panic attacks in a veteran diagnosed with PTSD.”
In July, Merritt sent Eckley an email with the subject header “The Form of the Flying Dutchman,” announcing his plans to donate to the state a database he had created showing where all state and local government agencies electronically store and preserve public documents. In the email, which was copied to dozens of other public officials, Merritt said he had compiled the database while being treated for PTSD.
Eckley forwarded the message to Pottorff, in her final weeks as IPIB chairwoman, seeking advice and expressing concern that “it could create some security risks if he collects information about where and how records are stored online.”
Pottorff responded by indicating Merritt’s actions were “probably related to his mental health issues” and suggested Eckley consult with the Iowa Department of Public Safety.
Then, last month, Merritt sent a 17-page letter to Jasper County indicating he planned to submit quarterly requests for information “to all Iowa state, county, public school districts, public universities and the top 100 municipal government bodies.” His letter also included a work he labeled, “A United States Navy True Sea Story” that detailed a practical joke he claimed to have played on an officer in 2007.
Around that time, Assistant Black Hawk County Attorney Michael O’Treinan pushed back on one of Merritt’s records requests, writing, “You have asked for literally every email sent or received by the county recorder’s office.” O’Treinan warned that each email would have to be gathered and then reviewed for confidentiality. “We anticipate this would take a massive amount of time by our staff.”
Days later, Eckley wrote to the state’s Office of Chief Information Officer to express “ongoing concerns regarding the activity from Mr. Merritt.”
Eckley wrote that “Merritt is making 1000s of records requests to government entities. He has a right to do that. The concern I have is that he has stated he wants to develop a database of the government email systems, etc.” She wrote that she was concerned about the “potential harm that could be done if there is a database that shares information that could be useful to others to harm these government systems if bad actors were able to use the information to insert malware of ransomware.”
‘There is a potential immediate crisis’
Shortly before 4 a.m. on Aug. 11, Merritt filed 35 complaints with IPIB over alleged Open Records Law violations. Six hours later, Eckley wrote to three IPIB board members warning them Merritt had “ramped up” both his requests for information and his complaints to the board.
“At one point he told me he was going to develop a database of information to make request to government entities easier – particularly how they store emails,” Eckley told the board members. “I am not sure his actions are meant to be a cybersecurity threat, but he could be creating information that others could use for attacks.”
She warned of a “potential immediate crisis” that would have a direct impact on her own office, which works to resolve disputes over public-records requests. “This has ballooned into something that could consume all of the IPIB resources … if we have to open a complaint for every allegation he makes in regards to his voluminous and indecipherable requests.”
One board member responded, “His requests do seem to be bordering on harassment. And this greatly concerns me.”
On Sept. 13, Eckley circulated to others draft legislation that would allow government agencies in Iowa to ignore, for up to one year, any public-records requests made by individuals that IPIB deemed a “vexatious requester.”
Associations representing those government agencies were supportive.
Emily Shields, executive director of Community Colleges for Iowa, wrote back: “‘Vexatious requester’ might be the greatest term I have ever heard.”
Siobhan Schneider of the Iowa Association of School Boards suggested adding a provision that would allow IPIB to stay all pending records requests from a potential “vexatious requester” while the board considered the issue. “That is a good suggestion,” Eckley responded.
Eaton, the Jasper County information-technology specialist who had been dealing with Merritt, told Eckley: “The vexatious requester legislation looks great. It gives us the ability to present you with our case and actionable steps.”
Eckley said Friday that IPIB intends to gather more information on the issue of vexatious requesters and the proposed legislation and will possibly hold a public hearing on the matter.
Altoona police faced with multiple requests from one man
Altoona Police Chief Greg Stallman, who serves as the legislative chair for the Iowa Police Chiefs’ Association, said he thinks the proposed vexatious requester bill may have promise.
He said his department is dealing with a miliary veteran, Benjamin Ward, 38, of Altoona, who has filed hundreds of information requests with the city.
“We can’t get into court because there’s nothing in law that allows us to say he’s a vexatious requester,” Stallman told the Iowa Public Information Board this week. “He has sued us over open records, and he has lost, but nothing prevents him from filing or making open records requests … We are spending tens of thousands of dollars — and man hours — of taxpayers’ money for this and there’s no end in sight.”
Ward says the actual number of requests is “50 or so,” and adds that many of his requests are reiterations of requests that the city has previously ignored or denied.
Court records show Ward has sued the city’s police department twice this year for alleged Open Records Law violations involving his inability to access police body-camera footage. In recent months, Ward has also filed small claims cases against his neighbors and then filed complaints against judges or magistrates who have dismissed those claims.
A complaint against one magistrate was for lack of impartiality and disability discrimination. Ward complained that during one court hearing he was asked to remove his “privacy hat” – which he describes as a wide-brimmed hat with a mask that has breathing holes in it — and said the magistrate forced him “to describe my disability in detail” to the court. In a separate case, Ward asked that an opposing party be sanctioned for making disparaging comments about “my behavior which is due to my disability.”
Stallman said until recently he never considered charging Ward for the cost of compliance with his requests as he didn’t want to go down the path of charging citizens for access to public information. He said he’s a believer in providing information free of charge to the public.