WASHINGTON — A former IRS contractor admitted in federal court Thursday that he stole tax records belonging to Donald Trump and thousands of other wealthy people in 2019 and 2020 before he leaked them to the media.
Charles Littlejohn, 38, pleaded guilty to one count of disclosure of tax return and return information at a brief hearing in Washington. The felony charge carries a five-year maximum sentence, but Littlejohn is expected to face eight to 14 months in prison, according to prosecutors’ estimate of the sentencing guidelines.
Littlejohn, who’s free on bail, appeared in court wearing a suit and tie and gave brief responses to questions posed by U.S. District Judge Ana Reyes.
“Donald J. Trump,” Littlejohn said when he was asked to confirm the identity of the “high ranking government official” whose tax records he was charged with leaking.
Littlejohn confirmed to Reyes that he leaked Trump’s records to The New York Times and that he had leaked the tax records of thousands of wealthy people to ProPublica.
The Times published exclusive reporting on Trump’s tax returns in 2020 showing that he had paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. In 2021, ProPublica published reporting based on a trove of IRS data showing how billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk avoided paying federal income taxes.
Prosecutors said in court filings that Littlejohn provided ProPublica with information about “thousands of the nation’s wealthiest people, including returns and return information dating back more than 15 years.”
ProPublica has said it “doesn’t know the identity of the source who provided this trove of information on the taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans.”
Charlie Stadtlander,a spokesperson for the Times said in a statement: “We remain concerned when whistleblowers who provide information in the public interest are prosecuted. The Times’s reporting on this topic played an important role in helping the public understand the financial ties and tax strategies of a sitting president — information that has long been seen as central to the knowledge that voters should have about the leader of our government and the candidates for that high office.”
Trump was the first president since the 1970s to refuse to make his tax returns public. He claimed during the 2016 campaign that he could not release them because he was under audit, and then refused to disclose them after he was elected, sparking years of speculation about how little he was paying in taxes and how his businesses might have been profiting off his presidency.
The House Ways and Means Committee, then under Democratic control, voted to make six years of his returns public in 2022. They showed he reported millions in negative income in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2020, and he paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. He paid no taxes in 2020, according to a House review.
They also showed he raked in tens of millions of dollars from overseas, including $6.5 million from China in 2017.
After the judge accepted Littlejohn’s guilty plea on Thursday, she said, “I cannot overstate how troubled I am by what occurred.
“Make no mistake, this was not acceptable,” Reyes added. “And if there’s anyone out there telling you it’s acceptable because the ends justify the means and they think the end is appropriate, they are wrong.”
Trump lawyer Alina Habba delivered a victim impact statement on his behalf, calling Littlejohn’s actions an “atrocity.”
“This was an egregious breach by an agent of the IRS who targeted the president of the United States, among others, for political purposes and personal gain,” Habba said.
Littlejohn is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 29.
Daniel Barnes reports for NBC News, based in Washington.
Dareh Gregorian is a politics reporter for NBC News.