Because of Charles Littlejohn, we know that former President Donald Trump and a whole bunch of other rich people pay next to nothing in taxes, while the rest of us frantically file tax returns and see our wages sucked away to fund the military, aid for Israel and corporate subsidies. Littlejohn, a former consultant at the Internal Revenue Service, leaked these tax returns, which resulted in major investigative findings for the New York Times (9/27/20) and ProPublica (6/8/21).
For leaking this sensitive information, Littlejohn has been sentenced to five years in federal prison, the maximum jail term (CNN, 1/29/24). Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicole Argentieri said in a statement (1/29/24):
Charles Littlejohn abused his position as a consultant at the Internal Revenue Service by disclosing thousands of Americans’ federal tax returns and other private financial information to news organizations. He violated his responsibility to safeguard the sensitive information that was entrusted to his care, and now he is a convicted felon.
Littlejohn’s lawyers (Bloomberg, 1/18/24) had argued that he had acted “out of a deep, moral belief that the American people had a right to know the information and sharing it was the only way to effect change.”
The extremity of the sentence “will chill future whistleblowers from revealing corruption and wrongdoing,” the Freedom of the Press Foundation (1/30/24) said. Slate writer Alex Sammon (Twitter, 1/29/24) said, “This guy is a hero who showed us how the super-rich steal from the American public.” Nevertheless, he added, “the judge gave him a max sentence, claiming it was ‘a moral imperative’ to punish him as harshly as possible.”
After the ProPublica investigation was released, Republicans called for investigation into how the documents were leaked, while progressives used the data to call for a reform in the tax code (ProPublica, 6/9/21). The findings gave new political life to the Occupy Wall Street movement’s central argument about wealth inequality being enforced by government policy.
Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times editorial board (6/8/21) wrote that there is a “basic unfairness that the wealthy are living by a different set of rules, lavishly spending money that isn’t taxed as income.” He added that the “ProPublica story underscores the argument for transparency: It allows Americans to judge how well the system is working.”
In response to the investigation, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said: ”Tax the billionaires. Make them pay their fair share. Rebuild our nation’s crumbling infrastructure” (Twitter, 6/8/21). ProPublica (7/14/21) later reported the leaks reignited congressional action to tackle regressive taxation:
Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D–R.I.) wrote to the [Senate Finance] committee’s chairman, Ron Wyden (D–Ore.), that the “bombshell” and “deeply troubling” [ProPublica] report requires an investigation into “how the nation’s wealthiest individuals are using a series of legal tax loopholes to avoid paying their fair share of income taxes.” The senators also requested that the Senate hold hearings and develop legislation to address the loopholes’ “impact on the nation’s finances and ability to pay for investments in infrastructure, health care, the economy, and the environment.”
At the time of the investigation, I noted (FAIR.org, 6/17/21) that the outrage against the leaks among Republicans, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times was proof that the ProPublica report was something more than momentarily important.
How power works
For many of Trump’s critics, reporting on his tax returns was vital because he had failed to disclose them himself, which candidates traditionally do, and because people deserve to know how their elected leaders obtained their wealth. For Trump’s political supporters, the disclosure was meant to sully his image as a business genius and a champion of Middle America, thus empowering the Democrats’ 2020 election chances. Trump himself tried to dismiss the Times‘ revelations, saying “he paid ‘millions of dollars’” to the IRS, and that he is “‘entitled’ to tax credits ‘like everyone else’” (Fox News, 9/28/20).
Littlejohn now joins people like Reality Winner (New York Times, 8/23/18) and Chelsea Manning (NPR, 1/17/17), security and military-sector leakers who put their freedom on the line to disclose government secrets they felt should be a matter of the public record.
The fact of the matter is that investigative journalism can only happen because of leakers who take great risks. Adrian Schoolcraft, an NYPD officer who provided the Village Voice (5/4/10) with evidence of statistics manipulation, felt the wrath of government power when he was eventually forced into a psychiatric ward (Chief, 10/5/15). Edward Snowden, who provided the Guardian (6/11/13) with details about widespread NSA surveillance, is still in exile in Russia as a result of his decision to be a whistleblower.
Reporters are constantly cultivating relationships with congressional staffers and corporate executives, hoping to learn something about how power works. The infliction of the maximum penalty—Littlejohn pleaded guilty and asked for leniency—shows that the US justice system has no patience for this kind of democratic openness.
‘A public defense’
In fact, as former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of tax issues, told FAIR in a phone interview, there is precedent for tax-scandal leakers to escape prosecution. In one case (New York Times, 8/10/04), he said, he warned his source Remy Welling, an IRS auditor, that she could go to prison for leaking information, but she chose to go public anyway. She was not prosecuted, he said.
“This raises an issue: Should there be a public defense that what you did was not for any personal gain, and it was designed to inform the public and improve the performance of our government?” Johnston asked.
He argued that cases like Welling’s should set a precedent for people like Littlejohn. “If you can prove it, you should not be subject to incarceration,” Johnston said.
‘Exposed nothing illegal’
Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee asked the judge to inflict the harshest possible sentence, saying in a letter (National Review, 1/29/24): “Individuals who may be inclined to take the law into their own hands, as Mr. Littlejohn did, must know that they will be caught and that they will face severe consequences.” Any leniency, they said, “does not comport with the seriousness of the crimes committed,” and would “fail to have the deterrent effect needed to prevent such a theft and disclosure from happening again.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board (1/29/24) celebrated the sentence:
When Mr. Littlejohn pleaded guilty last year, a spokesman for the Times said, “We remain concerned when whistleblowers who provide information in the public interest are prosecuted.” Translation: We don’t like it when our sources who commit crimes are then prosecuted for breaking the law because that might deter other sources.
The returns Mr. Littlejohn stole exposed nothing illegal. He was merely indulging a partisan political interest in embarrassing Mr. Trump and promoting policies to soak rich taxpayers. ProPublica has published more than 50 stories based on the Littlejohn leak, and its original story was timed to promote the Democratic campaign for a wealth tax. At least Mr. Littlejohn has apologized. Perhaps the journalists will console him with their high moral purposes as he serves his time behind prison walls.
There’s a lot going on in those two paragraphs. The first is a snide remark to the Times editors who feel that their sources should be protected. The Journal, of course, has for almost a year been rightly demanding the release of Evan Gershkovich, its reporter who was arrested by Russia because he “collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of an enterprise within Russia’s military-industrial complex” (TASS, 3/30/23). In other words, he committed the crime of trying to report something the Russian government didn’t want reported.
Naturally, the Journal doesn’t like that—and it shouldn’t like it when it’s the US government using police to protect its secrets, either. The essence of investigative journalism is people telling the press things that aren’t supposed to. How many Charles Littlejohns do Journal reporters rely on every day?
The Journal board also complained that Littlejohn was not highlighting some unlawful corruption, but rather acting as a class warrior for the 99%. It’s true that Littlejohn was not exposing corruption in the legal sense, but by revealing what the rich can legally get away with was demonstrating that we live in an increasingly divided society. The Journal rejects this as an ethical motivation because its allegiance to the upper class trumps any sympathy for muckraking journalism.
The Journal, in essence, seemed to agree with the judge in the case, who had already shown hostility toward the prosecution for only bringing one felony count against Littlejohn (Washington Examiner, 1/29/24).
‘Political malice aforethought’
Of course, the Journal hated the ProPublica findings from the get-go, lamenting that the findings were leading to a call for a wealth tax (1/16/21). The board (10/1/23) later called for the maximum sentence for Littlejohn, and a lot of that was motivated by the board’s reactionary politics:
The leaks were clearly done with political malice aforethought. Mr. Trump’s information was disclosed while he was in a brawl with Congress over access to his tax returns, which the former president had refused to release.
ProPublica portrayed the tax returns it obtained as proof of tax unfairness because the rich don’t pay taxes on their accumulated wealth. The leaks coincided with the campaign by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and the left to pass a wealth tax.
Would the Journal have called for a leaker’s head on a pike in the same way if the information revealed that the tax code lopsidedly favors public school teachers? One would guess the answer is no.
Not sticking up for their source
It’s distressing that major news organizations, outside of the Journal, aren’t more publicly concerned about the maximum sentence being imposed on Littlejohn. The New York Times news report (1/29/24) on the sentencing had four condemnatory quotes from prosecutors (and one from Republican Sen. Tim Scott) before including a single quote from Littlejohn’s lawyer defending him.
Appelbaum of the Times editorial board did stick up for Littlejohn online (New York Times, 1/30/24), saying what he did “shouldn’t be a crime.” But where is the rest of the Times crying out to protect the person who made the paper’s reporting possible?
ProPublica (1/30/24) recently bragged about winning an award for its defense of free speech, but shouldn’t it be equally outspoken about the chilling impact of the judicial punishment of its own source?
The ability of the Times and ProPublica to reveal stories like these is under attack. They should care about that.