This week, ProPublica released a massive scoop—a treasure trove of financial records showing how some of the U.S.’s wealthiest billionaires scamper off with virtually no tax burden. And the U.S. government knows exactly what to do in response: find whoever released those embarrassing records and incarcerate the shit out of them.
ProPublica obtained official Internal Revenue Service documents that were, admittedly, not supposed to be public knowledge and released key details about just how well various tax tricks used by the ultra-wealthy are working out for them. For example, compared to Forbes estimates, the country’s 25 richest people saw a net growth of $401 billion in wealth from 2014 to 2018 but paid just $13.6 billion in federal income tax—an effective rate of 3.4%. Berkshire Hathaway investment titan Warren Buffet saw his net worth rise by $24.3 billion over that period, paying just $23.7 million in tax. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos saw his net worth rise by $99 billion, paying just $973 million in tax. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ratio was $22.5 billion in net worth gains to $292 million in tax, while Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was $13.9 billion to $455 million.
Morally obscene display of inequality and impunity as this is, the U.S. government has far more pressing concerns, such as punishing whoever squealed. Attorney General Merrick Garland assured lawmakers on Wednesday that one of his most immediate focuses will be plugging the leak, wherever or whoever it might be.
“I promise you, it will be at the top of my list,” Garland told GOP Sen. Susan Collins during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, according to CNBC.
“Senator, I take this as seriously as you do. I very well remember what President Nixon did in the Watergate period—the creation of enemies lists and the punishment of people through reviewing their tax returns,” Garland added. “This is an extremely serious matter, people are entitled, obviously, to great privacy with respect to their tax returns.”
Garland added that IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig had told him “inspectors were working on it, and I’m sure that that means it will be referred to the Justice Department.”
“The unauthorized disclosure of confidential government information is illegal,” Treasury spokeswoman Lily Adams told CNN. “The matter is being referred to the Office of the Inspector General, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, all of whom have independent authority to investigate.”
Of course, the tax records likely were obtained in some illegal manner before they were released to ProPublica. And even if the IRS sympathized with those on the shitty end of the billionaires’ inequality stick—not that they do—looking the other way is not an option in any way, especially as the feds must determine if any IRS officials were involved in the leak or IRS systems were compromised by hackers. (According to the Financial Times, 30-year IRS small business division veteran Eric Hylton said he had “not seen a leak such as this in my entire career” and found the idea it originated with IRS personnel hard to believe.)
Finding the source is not mutually exclusive with President Joe Biden’s proposals to raise an additional $3.5 trillion in taxes from the extremely wealthy over the next decade. But punishing someone won’t change that ProPublica’s scoop was undeniably in the public interest, detailing just how and why the system is wired to enrich the wealthy at the expense of pretty much everyone else.
The Biden administration has said it will not go to the same extremes as Donald Trump’s administration in hunting down leakers, taking off the table some methods that threatened the First Amendment right of journalists to publish leaked government documents. But previous administrations, such as Barack Obama’s, have similarly paid lip service to a free press while simultaneously targeting whistleblowers, leakers, and journalists for crackdowns, and Biden has yet to demonstrate he won’t do the same. CNBC noted that Garland’s comments come as the Justice Department is backpedaling Trump-era tactics at the DOJ such as obtaining phone records of New York Times reporters, but hasn’t officially ruled them off-limits yet:
Garland’s comments came as the Justice Department, at the direction of President Joe Biden, has sought to move away from the aggressive tactics employed against journalists and media organizations under former President Donald Trump and previous administrations.
On Saturday, the department said that, “in a change to its longstanding practice,” it will refrain from seizing records from reporters in leak investigations. Last month, Biden called that practice “simply wrong,” though his position hadn’t been formalized yet as policy.
The Financial Times wrote that at least one of the billionaires shaken by the ProPublica report is planning to launch their own investigation. Bloomberg told the paper in a statement he would use “all legal means” to find the source of the leak, that he “scrupulously obeys the letter and spirit of the law,” and that three-quarters of his annual income goes to taxes or charities.
“The release of a private citizen’s tax returns should raise real privacy concerns regardless of political affiliation or views on tax policy,” Bloomberg told the Times. “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.”