Hours after an investigative news outlet said it obtained years of tax returns showing that billionaires including Amazon
founder Jeff Bezos and Tesla
co-founder Elon Musk did not owe income taxes, the Internal Revenue Service’s head said there’s a probe underway to see how the tax returns got out in the first place.
“I can confirm that there is an investigation with respect to the allegations that the source of the information in that article came from the Internal Revenue Service. Upon reviewing the article, the appropriate contacts were made, as you would expect,” Charles Rettig, the tax agency’s commissioner, told senators on Tuesday.
Rettig was testifying before the Senate’s Finance Committee about the IRS’s budget proposal.
The Treasury Department was even more specific. The department is referring the matter to various law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the District of Columbia’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, according to Treasury Department spokeswoman Lily Adams. The Treasury Department’s own Office of the Inspector General and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration are also looking into the matter, Adams said.
“The unauthorized disclosure of confidential government information is illegal,” she said.
Earlier in the day, the investigative news site ProPublica published a story digging into the income tax returns of some of the country’s richest people, also including Michael Bloomberg, the founder and CEO of Bloomberg, and Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway
The ProPublica story said the outlet “is not disclosing how it obtained the data, which was given to us in raw form, with no conditions or conclusions.”
“We are aware of Commissioner Rettig’s statement this morning. As we said, we do not know the identity of our source,” Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s president, said in a statement.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, asked Rettig if he would seeking prosecution if investigators found the source.
“Absolutely,” Rettig said. “I share the concern of every American for the sensitive and private nature and confidential nature of the information the IRS receives.”
It’s illegal under federal law for people, including federal and state government workers, to “willfully” provide an unauthorized disclosure of information, including tax returns.
In the ProPublica story itself, a statement from Bloomberg’s spokesman said the former New York City mayor paid the “maximum tax rate” under all federal, state and local tax codes.
“The release of a private citizen’s tax returns should raise real privacy concerns regardless of political affiliation or views on tax policy,” the statement said. “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 ProPublica article examined the wealth, based on Forbes data, of America’s 25 richest people, and found that their collective worth increased by $401 billion between 2014 and 2018. “They paid a total of $13.6 billion in federal income taxes in those five years, the IRS data shows,” ProPublica reported.”That’s a staggering sum, but it amounts to a true tax rate of only 3.4%.”
Bezos did not comment in the ProPublica story; Musk replied to the outlet’s questions with a “?”, Buffett provided a statement saying he continues to believe that the tax code should be changed substantially, and noting that following his death, “about 99.5% of what I have will go to some combination of taxes and disbursements to various philanthropies.”