A former Internal Revenue Service contractor pleaded guilty to stealing secret tax return information about former President Donald Trump and thousands of the wealthiest Americans and leaking it to two news organizations.
(Bloomberg) — A former Internal Revenue Service contractor pleaded guilty to stealing secret tax return information about former President Donald Trump and thousands of the wealthiest Americans and leaking it to two news organizations.
Charles Littlejohn, 38, admitted Thursday in a Washington federal court that he stole data about Trump and wealthy Americans and gave that information to media outlets between August 2019 and November 2020. He pleaded guilty to a single charge that carries a prison term as long as five years, but likely faces an estimated range of eight to 14 months, according to his plea deal.
US District Judge Ana Reyes accepted the guilty plea from Littlejohn despite an objection from Trump’s attorney Alina Habba, who spoke during the hearing and called the leak an “atrocity” and an “egregious breach.” Habba asked the judge to impose the maximum prison term if the deal went forward. She also urged the Justice Department to further investigate if other individuals were involved.
Littlejohn shared Trump’s information with the New York Times and tax data about the nation’s billionaires, including Ken Griffin, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, with ProPublica. The news outlet had noted in the series it published about the tax data that it covered more than 15 years.
Read More: IRS Contractor Charged With Leaking Tax Data on Billionaires
Reyes said that although she didn’t see grounds to reject Littlejohn’s guilty plea, she agreed with Habba that it was “unacceptable” for people to take the law into their own hands and vowed there would be “severe consequences.”
The judge addressed Littlejohn near the end of the hearing, delivering a brief history of US privacy laws related to taxpayer information and stressing that secrecy was needed to encourage people to be truthful in reporting to the IRS.
“I cannot overstate how troubled I am,” she said to Littlejohn, who sat watching her at a table in the courtroom with his hands clasped at the table.
Littlejohn’s attorney declined to comment following the hearing. He’ll remain free until his sentencing on Jan 29. Neither side said during the hearing how he obtained the tax information but a Justice Department news release offered some details.
He accessed tax return information relating to Trump, referred as Public Official A, by “using broad search parameters designed to conceal the true purpose of his queries,” according to the release. He then evaded IRS protocols set up to prevent large downloads or uploads from IRS devices or systems, saved the tax returns to “multiple personal storage devices, including an iPod,” and then gave the data to the Times, referred to as News Organization 1, between August and October 2019.
In July and August 2020, he stole information for thousands of the nation’s wealthiest people, and gave it ProPublica, referred to as News Organization 2, in November 2020, the US said. Littlejohn then “obstructed the forthcoming investigation into his conduct by deleting and destroying evidence of his disclosures.”
US Attorney General Merrick Garland told lawmakers in June 2021 that investigating the massive leak to ProPublica would be one of his top priorities.
The ProPublica report said billionaires including Bezos and Musk had in some years paid minimal or no income tax even as their fortunes soared. It outlined the tax strategies available to Americans in the top 0.1% of wealth. Michael Bloomberg, majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, was among those included in the reporting.
The Justice Department said in an Oct. 4 court filing it had notified 152 victims so far and was working to identify more. Griffin, founder of the Citadel hedge fund, got a victim notice dated Sept. 22, according to a copy reviewed by Bloomberg News.
Habba confirmed that she had received notice of the case on Trump’s behalf.
Under federal law, victims of the leak would be entitled to certain rights, including to be notified about a plea deal and upcoming court dates, to address the judge at sentencing and to be reimbursed for financial losses. Rather than contact them all individually, the government asked the judge to authorize use of a Justice Department website.
Littlejohn’s data theft emerged at a time when lawmakers and government watchdogs have made repeated warnings about faulty safeguards at the IRS, which last year processed 260 million tax returns. In August, the Government Accountability Office issued a report urging the IRS to address “critical safeguard weaknesses.”
The report found, for instance, that a third of the 14,000 contractors assigned a course on insider threats had failed to complete the training. The IRS also failed to assess the risks for how it transferred taxpayer data to contractors, limiting its ability to assure the data was safe, the GAO reported.
Griffin has sued the IRS over the data leaks. According to ProPublica, he reported an average annual income of almost $1.7 billion between 2013 and 2018 and paid an average federal tax rate of 29.2%. Griffin has a net worth of $36.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Read More: Ken Griffin’s IRS Data Leak Suit Should Be Tossed, US Says
In April, the IRS asked a judge to dismiss Griffin’s suit, arguing he was speculating that an IRS employee leaked his tax data. But in an Oct. 6 filing, Griffin said “the willful and intentionally malicious conduct of IRS personnel (including but not limited to Charles Littlejohn) were ultimately responsible for” the agency failure to safeguard his data.
The case is US v. Littlejohn, 23-cr-00343, US District Court, District of Columbia.
(Updates with details about Littlejohn’s theft.)
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