JUNE 8, 2021
Troves of private tax records from the country’s wealthiest residents were leaked to ProPublica, which published an analysis of the data on Tuesday morning.
The nonprofit investigative news organization used the leaked Internal Revenue Service records to show that some of the ultra-rich, such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and George Soros, paid no federal income taxes in certain years. It also compared their wealth growth relative to their taxes paid in an effort to highlight the ways in which they avoided paying higher levels of taxation.
ProPublica claims that it doesn’t know who the source of the leak was. Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg and President Richard Tofel explained in a separate article about their decision to publish the data that reporters worked diligently to ensure the veracity of the information that was leaked. The news outlet also hinted that the data was transmitted through a secure depository.
“We live in an age in which people with access to information can copy it with the click of a mouse and transmit it in a variety of ways to news organizations,” the second article read. “Many years ago, ProPublica and other news organizations set up secure systems that allow whistleblowers to transmit information to us without revealing their identity.”
ProPublica said that it did not actively solicit the information that the source leaked. Engelberg and Tofel also said that the source claimed to be motivated by the news organization’s previous coverage on IRS matters and tax enforcement.
The editor-in-chief and president noted that they considered the possibility that the information could have come from a state actor or source hostile to U.S. interests. They pointed out that U.S. government agencies were hacked last year by Russians, although they also highlighted remarks from a Treasury Department official who said there was no evidence that taxpayer information was exposed as part of the SolarWinds hack.
The duo addressed the journalistic ethics of the leak as well: “Many will ask about the ethics of publishing such private data. We are doing so — quite selectively and carefully — because we believe it serves the public interest in fundamental ways, allowing readers to see patterns that were until now hidden.”
The article itself discusses several different wealthy and well-known individuals and the amount of federal taxes they paid in various years. Among them was former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose spokesman defended the billionaire and former presidential contender’s tax record while also pushing back on ProPublica’s publication of the data.
“The release of a private citizen’s tax returns should raise real privacy concerns regardless of political affiliation or views on tax policy,” a spokesman said in a statement. “In the United States no private citizen should fear the illegal release of their taxes. We intend to use all legal means at our disposal to determine which individual or government entity leaked these and ensure that they are held responsible.”
The Washington Examiner contacted both the IRS and the FBI to inquire about whether an investigation into the leak has been launched or if one is being planned following Tuesday morning’s articles. Neither agency immediately responded to the requests for comment.