Last Monday, Charles Littlejohn was sentenced to five years in prison for leaking the tax returns of thousands of prominent and wealthy individuals, including former president Donald Trump, to the New York Times and ProPublica.
In a sentencing memorandum, Littlejohn stated that he did it out of a deep, moral belief that the American people had a right to know the information and that sharing it was the only way to effect change.
A prison term of five years is the statutory maximum and considered to be one of the largest sentences for a leak case. District Court Judge Ana Reyes called Littlejohn’s conduct “an attack on our constitutional democracy,” that targeting the sitting president of the United States of America is exceptional by any measure and that “it cannot be open season on our elected officials.” She even compared his acts to the January 6 rioters.
But despite the judge’s strong condemnation and issuing the maximum sentence for the crime, some wondered whether Littlejohn is getting a slap on the wrist. Republican Sen. Rick Scott, who has said he is one of the victims of the leak, claims that the plea agreement was extremely lenient. Despite leaking confidential tax returns of thousands of wealthy and famous Americans, he was charged with only one count. The Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee wrote a letter to the judge also expressing concern that Littlejohn was charged with only one count and may have even committed obstruction of justice.
If the Republicans are correct, it is probably to Littlejohn’s advantage to be sentenced before the 2024 election. It appears that Trump is likely to be the Republican presidential candidate in the general election and has a chance of winning a Trump-Biden rematch. If Trump becomes president while Littlejohn’s case is still open, that case may take a very nasty turn.
Even with the maximum sentence, Littlejohn will face other challenges after he serves his sentence. He will have a felony on his record which will bar him from some jobs. Obviously, he will never work at the IRS and possibly any other government agency. But there are some employers who hate Trump and may overlook this transgression.
Although Littlejohn committed a serious crime, it exposed how an insider with a moral or political vendetta can compromise sensitive information. The IRS and the Treasury Department, at a minimum, should have known that Trump’s tax returns should only be accessible by high-ranking officials and possibly be removed from the IRS computer database altogether. Every wealthy American will now question whether their tax returns and other private information is safe.
And of course, there is Trump himself. For reasons known only to him, Trump refused to voluntarily release his tax returns. And this only riled up his many haters claiming that his tax returns are hiding something.
Many have argued that the involuntary release of Trump’s tax returns was inevitable. If Littlejohn didn’t do it, one of Trump’s many haters would, maybe even someone from the Trump Organization. And ultimately, when Democrats took over Congress in 2021, the House Ways and Means Committee legally released six years of Trump’s tax returns. The Democrats still control the Senate, and the Senate Finance Committee’s Democratic majority can vote to release Trump’s tax returns if Trump continues to keep them to himself.
Critics of Littlejohn’s sentence claim that it is too light. But wannabes better think long and hard because, under different circumstances, they may not get the same sentence.
Steven Chung is a tax attorney in Los Angeles, California. He helps people with basic tax planning and resolve tax disputes. He is also sympathetic to people with large student loans. He can be reached via email at [email protected]. Or you can connect with him on Twitter (@stevenchung) and connect with him on LinkedIn.