ProPublica: We're publishing the illegally leaked tax returns of the wealthiest Americans because ...

They’re doing it simply someone at the IRS gave private materials protected by law to them? Really? The news agency that “investigates abuses of power” seems to overlook a very large example of just that kind of official abuse to expose … legal behavior. ProPublica has done excellent investigative work in the past, but this raises all sorts of questions as to motives and manipulation.

Not at ProPublica, however:

Today, ProPublica is launching the first in a series of stories based on the private tax data of some of our nation’s richest citizens. We obtained the information from an anonymous source who provided us with large amounts of information on the ultrawealthy, everything from the taxes they paid to the income they reported to the profits from their stock trades. …

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.

Tax experts have long understood that the wealthiest Americans reap outsized benefits from the federal tax code’s emphasis on taxing income rather than assets like stock holdings and property. Yet, when The New York Times disclosed in 2020 that President Donald Trump had amassed so many deductions he paid no taxes in 11 of 18 years, it was assumed that his case was an anomaly, reflecting the unique breaks real estate developers receive under our tax system.

It is now clear that there isn’t just one such taxpayer — there are many, in multiple industries. We believe that disclosing the identities of billionaires who paid little to no taxes in years their fortunes grew by billions of dollars will help readers understand the magnitude of the tax advantages the ultrarich enjoy.

If “tax experts have long understood” this, then what’s the point of exposing private information — especially since it’s not the taxpayers who control this, at least directly? Tax returns are protected by law for a reason — they want filers to have no excuses for being completely honest about their income. If ProPublica wants to cover the unfairness of the tax system, interview the tax experts and construct hypotheticals — or ask some of these “.001 percenters” for permission to use their tax returns.

There’s no indication that these particular filers aren’t being honest. If these taxpayers were breaking the law and getting away with it, that might be a good reason to expose the people and their returns as a way to pressure the IRS and the Department of Justice into enforcement. That’s not the issue for this ProPublica article, however; they’re unhappy about the policy and regulation with which these filers comply.

And more to the point, so is the person who leaked this material. This isn’t a whistleblower calling attention to official abuse of power or lawbreaking. It’s someone who has a beef with the law as it stands, and is himself abusing the power of his position to manipulate public opinion about it. ProPublica is playing along for its own political purposes, which puts them in a moral position of cooperating with abuse of power rather than investigating it.

Jim Geraghty isn’t impressed, either:

The relevant question is not whether you like Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett and Elon Musk. The question is whether the IRS declaration that tax returns are confidential applies to everyone or not. This morning it’s pretty clear that the your tax return is confidential, as long as no one at the IRS thinks it is newsworthy. But if they do, you’re screwed. …

The true problem isn’t the reporters, it is the people with access to classified, privileged, confidential or sensitive information who decide to violate their oaths and the law to leak that information, and that is the proper target for prosecutions. That said, a publication can look at leaked information and conclude they’re not going to play a supporting role in the violation of a person’s right to privacy.

That should have been an easy call for a publication supposedly dedicated to investigating abuses of power.