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Regulation and Compliance > Litigation

How an IRS Contractor Leaked Tax Data on Trump, Bezos and Musk

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What You Need to Know

  • Charles Littlejohn stole tax information on thousands of wealthy Americans and leaked it to several media outlets.
  • ProPublica noted it published stories about tax data that spanned more than 15 years.
  • Littlejohn pleaded guilty to a single charge that carries a prison term as long as five years.

A former Internal Revenue Service contractor used a private website to store secret tax return information he stole about former President Donald Trump and leaked to the New York Times, court records show.

Charles Littlejohn, 38, pleaded guilty Oct. 12 to stealing Trump’s data from the IRS and leaking it to the Times. He also stole tax return information about thousands of wealthy Americans — including Ken Griffin, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos — and leaked it to ProPublica.

The manner in which Littlejohn pulled off one of the most egregious security breaches in IRS history was revealed Sunday in a court filing.

Lawmakers and government watchdogs have repeatedly warned about about lax safeguards at the IRS, which processed 260 million tax returns last year. The filing said nothing about Littlejohn’s motive.

How the Data Was Hidden

To avoid detection, Littlejohn accessed Trump’s tax return and other information in late 2018 by querying an IRS database using more “generalized parameters” rather than directly searching for the former president’s data, according to the filing.

He then uploaded the data to a personal, private website he controlled rather than downloading it to a physical storage device or using a remote storage website.

That allowed him to “avoid IRS protocols designed to detect and prevent large downloads or uploads” from agency devices or systems, according to the filing, which lays out the factual basis for his guilty plea.

That day, he used a personal computer to download the data from the private website, storing it in multiple locations, including personal data storage devices like his Apple iPod. In May 2019, he contacted the Times about leaking Trump’s tax data, disclosing it between August and October of that year.

In September 2020 — weeks before Trump lost the election to Joe Biden — the Times  published the first of several stories, revealing he paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, and no taxes in 10 of the previous 15 years.

Littlejohn used a similar method, including a private website, to store data he stole on thousands of the nation’s wealthiest people before leaking it to ProPublica, the filing shows. They included billionaires Griffin, Bezos and Musk. The news outlet noted in the series it published about the tax data that it spanned more than 15 years.

In uploading the data, he used two “virtual machines,” or “essentially simulated version of physical computers,” the filing said. He “promptly destroyed these machines” after using them to steal the data.

In September 2020, he contacted ProPublica to discuss the possibility of sharing the data on wealthy taxpayers. He then anonymously mailed the data to ProPublica on a password-protected storage device.

Two months later, he gave a journalist there the password. ProPublica has published nearly 50 stories based on that data.

ProPublica reported that 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.

Guilty Plea

Littlejohn 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. His sentencing is set for Jan. 29.

U.S. 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.

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.”

Littlejohn worked as a contractor for the same consulting firm from 2008 to 2010, 2012 to 2013, and 2017 to 2021, according to the filing. The firm wasn’t identified.

The case is U.S. v. Littlejohn, 23-cr-00343, US District Court, District of Columbia.

(Photo of Donald Trump from Bloomberg)

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