Can I Disclose a Candidate’s Tax Returns?

Let’s say that back in 2010 I prepared the federal and California tax returns for John and Mary Smith of Irvine, California. Ten years later, Mr. Smith decides to run for statewide office. Let’s further assume I abhor Mr. Smith’s politics. Can I leak his tax returns to the Los Angeles Times? Can the Times publish the Smiths’ returns?

I, like all tax professionals, fall under the rules of Circular 230. Circular 230 basically states that I can only disclose a client’s returns with his or her permission, and that these rules protect current clients, future clients, and former clients. Federal law has more to state about this: Under 26 U.S.C. § 7213(a)(1) it is illegal for me to disclose to anyone any information about a tax return. Additionally, 26 U.S.C. § 7213(a)(3) states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to whom any return or return information (as defined in section 6103(b)) is disclosed in a manner unauthorized by this title thereafter willfully to print or publish in any manner not provided by law any such return or return information.”

So the answer to the first question I asked is easy: It is very illegal for me to disclose Mr. & Mrs. Smiths’ returns to anyone for any reason whatsoever without the permission of the Smiths.

The answer to the second question is far more difficult. While federal law makes it illegal for anyone receiving illegally disclosed tax return information to publish it, the First Amendment to the Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”) likely overrides federal law. I have to use “likely” instead of “certainly” because there hasn’t been a case about this issue that has reached the Supreme Court.

I wrote this brief piece because of the release of information regarding President Trump’s tax returns from 1984-1995. The New York Times published this information and stated they received the information from someone who had legal access to them. It is a certainty that particular individual violated federal law and could be prosecuted. If he’s a licensed CPA or Enrolled Agent, he could lose his license; if he’s a licensed attorney, he could be disbarred. If the Department of Justice discovers the individual responsible for the leak, he or she is very likely to be prosecuted (it’s a slam-dunk case). As for the Department of Justice going after the New York Times, I highly doubt that will happen. The case is anything but a certain winner. I strongly suspect the First Amendment overrides 26 U.S.C § 7213(a)(3).

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