Last month, ProPublica began running a blockbuster series of stories on the paltry taxes paid by America’s ultrarich, based on a source even the investigative outlet doesn’t know.
But the nonprofit group carefully avoided exposing the raw data — posting no actual returns of the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Warren Buffett.
Almost immediately, Attorney General Merrick Garland promised lawmakers that finding the leaker would be “at the top of my list.” Within days, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig vowed his own investigation, and the Treasury Department followed suit — referring the matter to agencies including the FBI.
On Tuesday, Republican Reps. Darrell Issa of East County and Jim Jordan of Ohio sent letters to Rettig and J. Russell George, inspector general for tax administration at Treasury.
The House Judiciary Committee members revealed their own investigation into what they called the illegal sharing of a “vast trove of Internal Revenue Service data on the tax returns of thousands of the nation’s wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years.”
Said Issa of the 50th District in a statement: “The IRS has been weaponized before to target political opponents and this latest leak of confidential tax records from the IRS is suggestive of the most troubling type of politically motivated misconduct — to target innocent people and advance extreme, partisan legislation.”
He said the Biden Administration is proposing to double the size of the IRS and hire 87,000 new agents, so “there is no time to wait. We must hold the IRS accountable now.”
To help the committee, the pair demanded the IRS immediately take appropriate measures to “preserve all documents and communications referring or relating to the leak of tax return information to ProPublica, including all documents and communications referring or relating to any investigation into the leak.”
ProPublica’s founding general manager and retiring president is Richard Tofel, who helped write a justification of the series under the headline “Why We Are Publishing the Tax Secrets of the .001%”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Tofel said he had no idea what the leaker’s motivations were — or why Issa and Jordan are joining the party six weeks after the fact.
“To call for an investigation of something that’s already under investigation, I don’t know,” he told Times of San Diego. But: “One thing I would point out … is we haven’t said and we’re not going to say when we got this material. … I don’t think one should make any assumptions about when we got it.”
Tofel said ProPublica, winner of six Pulitzer Prizes, is publishing only “very limited selections that are in the public interest.”
He said “quite a few more” stories based on the IRS data are in the works. “But we are not releasing tax return information beyond the context of those articles. We’ve not released the raw data at all.”
Tofel didn’t recall Congress members’ taxes being discussed in the stories.
In the letter to Rettig, the House pair said: “ProPublica seems to have become a venue for far-left activists at the IRS to leak confidential tax return information to advance their partisan political goals.”
Pushing back, Tofel said: “We’re not in a position to talk about the source’s motives. Given that the congressmen certainly don’t know the sources, I think the same thing would have to be said of them.”
In a statement to Fox Business on Tuesday, Issa said the records were “either criminally handed over by the IRS or criminally stolen from the IRS.”
“It’s proof positive that anyone can have their most private information made public and used to destroy them if it advances the agenda of Democrats or shores up the power of progressive special interests,” said Issa, once the richest member of Congress.
Issa — whose House annual salary is $174,000 and didn’t respond to a request for comment — is now ranked as only one of the richest, with a reported minimum net worth in 2018 of $283.3 million. Jordan of Ohio’s 4th Congressional District is said to be worth a maximum of $431,000.
Besides calling for documents to be preserved, Issa and Jordan asked Rettig the IRS chief to arrange for a staff-level briefing on the leak, including the status of any internal examination of the leak, as well as methods and policies for safeguarding taxpayer information in place before the ProPublica articles and any alterations to methods or policies in light of the leak.
They gave a deadline for a briefing: “not later than 5:00 p.m. on August 10, 2021.”
ProPublica said in its explainer story it didn’t solicit the tax information it was sent.
“The source says they were motivated by our previous coverage of issues surrounding the IRS and tax enforcement, but we do not know for certain that is true,” the story said.
“We have considered the possibility that information we have received could have come from a state actor hostile to American interests. In particular, a number of government agencies were compromised last year by what the U.S. has said were Russian hackers who exploited vulnerabilities in software sold by SolarWinds, a Texas-based information technology company.”
ProPublica added that the Treasury Department’s George wrote in December that, “At this time, there is no evidence that any taxpayer information was exposed” in the SolarWinds hack.
It concluded: “Provenance is not essential; accuracy is. We have gone to considerable lengths to confirm that the information sent to us is accurate.”