The New York Times has a widely shared piece this morning, disclosing that Donald Trump reported a nearly $916 million loss on his income taxes in 1995 – a financial drubbing that The Times said could have allowed him to wipe out any income-tax liability for 18 years.
Partisans on both sides are engaged in typical partisan hysteria, and some are wondering on social media: Is this sort of reporting legal?
The story included copies of Trump’s state tax returns from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Most people in my profession have salivated over the thought of gaining access to tax filings for those whose background we’re investigating. But personal tax returns naturally are confidential, and the Department of Revenue Services would promptly laugh at us if we asked to see them.
So was The Times on shaky legal ground in publishing Trump’s Connecticut Non-Resident Tax Return?
Laws are often open to interpretation, but the answer is probably not. Yes there are state laws that provide penalties for disclosing tax information; no, those laws probably don’t apply to The Times.
Section 12-15 of the Connecticut General Statutes makes it illegal to inspect or disclose “return information” – including the sort of information The Times reported. But the law’s prohibition is limited to current and former state employees and to others who have authorized access to the returns (such as contractors hired to help process or store returns). Those with unauthorized access – including The Times – aren’t covered by the law. (Connecticut’s law is substantially similar to the federal law on tax-return privacy.)
So if a state official provided the document, that individual may have broken 12-15, which carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. But that law doesn’t appear to apply to The Times or its reporters. (That said, it seems unlikely the document came directly from the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services; The Times indicates that all three tax returns arrived together in an anonymous package on Sept. 23.)
But if an anonymous tipster broke the law in leaking the records, is The Times still on the hook for publishing them? Again, probably not – although lawyers for Trump have threatened legal action. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case in which a Pennsylvania radio station broadcast a recording of an illegally intercepted cell phone call between union officials during a contentious contract negotiation. The union officials sued, but the court sided with the radio station, ruling that journalists cannot be held liable for publishing illegally obtained information related to legitimate matters of public concern, so long as the journalists did not participate in illegally obtaining the information.
“Privacy of communication is an important interest. However, in this suit, privacy concerns give way when balanced against the interest in publishing matters of public importance,” the court wrote in Bartnicki v. Vopper. “A stranger’s illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern.”
The heated debate over the propriety and relevance of The Times’ story will likely go on. Just perhaps not in a court of law.
The fraud case brought against four spectacularly inefficient cancer charities is welcome news to watchdogs who have studied the fleecing of generous donors by unscrupulous nonprofits. But it is only the tip of the iceberg.
Americans donate hundreds of billions of dollars each year to more than 1.5 million tax-exempt organizations. The great majority are legitimate operations. But some – hundreds for sure – are little more than conduits that funnel money to professional fundraising firms while devoting pennies on the dollar to charitable purposes.
And there is often little the government can do about it. Continue reading
Paul N. Johnson sure gets around.
After the Courant exposed that a degree-selling outfit calling itself Denton University was claiming Genentech CEO Ian Clark as a graduate, Denton repeatedly reworked the online “alumni profile,” eventually swapping out Clark’s photo and claiming it was actually alumnus “Paul N. Johnson” who was the CEO of Genentech, a multi-billion-dollar drug company.
Wednesday, the profile was changed again, to delete any reference to Genentech. And now, Paul N. Johnson – who days ago was allegedly a biology graduate of Denton running a huge pharmaceutical company – has been re-imagined as a computer science graduate running an electronic medical record firm, among other things.
“Computer Engineer Alumnus Paul N. JohnSon has been Assigned as Cheif Executive Officer at Iros International, where He is managing also Lab Interface Projects,” the freshly rewritten profile now proclaims, complete with strange grammar, spelling errors and odd capitalizations. “Based in New york, he also heads EMR consultancy company name Allscripts which is also using genetic engineering research techniques in their labs and develop medicines with the help of Pharmaceutical Company.”
In these early days of the year, when we’re all vowing to hit the gym or give up smoking or call our mothers more often, I’m hoping there’s room for one more New Year’s resolution, one that’s as easy to execute as it is to remember.
For 2014, let’s all pledge: If you see something, say something.
No, I’m not talking about speed-dialing the Department of Homeland Security to report that suspicious Burger King bag you saw on Metro-North. I’m talking about building the partnership that exists between media outlets and the communities they reach. It’s a tenuous partnership at times, but it’s more important than ever.
News outlets have always depended on sources – from average citizens to the deeply connected – and for investigative reporters, that communication is critical. So when things are amiss in your community, when institutions are failing those they serve, when greed or bias gets the better of politicians, when injustice reigns, let us know.
Last month, the Courant reported that at least 15 college students awarded aid by the Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation between 2005 and 2008 had received less money than they were promised. The students did their best to harangue scholarship officials, with little success, and years passed before someone thought to alert the paper and prompt the sort of action that transparency and publicity often brings. But by the time we were on the story, it appears the Foundation’s coffers were empty. Imagine if we had known about the problems years earlier.
The Courant breaks a lot of news and we have excellent sourcing. But it could always be better. And it could hardly be easier. Have a tip? Call me at 860-241-6741 or send an email to our investigative blog, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use our online tip form.
Bob Woodward of the Washington Post once asked former Vice President Al Gore how much the press and the public really knew about what went on in the Clinton White House. Gore’s reply: “One percent.”
That doesn’t serve democracy. Sunlight does.
If you see something, say something.
The 17-member Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know is typically a cordial bunch, despite having strong voices at polar opposites on the issues. Garvin G. Ambrose, the state’s victim advocate, for example, evaluates victim privacy and media rights through a completely different lens than, say, James H. Smith, a former newspaper editor and now executive director of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. And Chief Public Defender Susan O. Storey sits right next to Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane, leading to frequent side-by-side disagreements, but also to occasional friendly banter.
But despite the normally civil tone, the task force, created in response to the Sandy Hook shootings, “can be a pressure cooker,” Smith said. And that below-the-surface tension made a rare and dramatic appearance during a marathon hearing Wednesday, when a frustrated DebraLee Hovey, a task force member and state representative from Newtown, laid into a transparency advocate who suggested that civil laws might already address the sort of harmful behavior members of the committee were looking to curtail.
Rosanna Cavanagh, a lawyer and executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told task force members that relatives of the Newtown victims had seemed to indicate through their attorney that they were primarily concerned about graphic details of the crime being misused by those on the fringe who were intent on causing pain to the families. She said those actions could run afoul of laws already on the books that punish the intentional infliction of emotional distress.
That earned a sharp rebuke from Hovey, who assailed Cavanagh’s perspective – and lawyers in general. You can view the exchange below, and watch the entire hearing on CT-N.com, the website of the Connecticut Network.
The task force was established by the legislature to “consider and make recommendations regarding the balance between victim privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know.” Those recommendations are due Jan. 1.
If you were a government official, how far would you go to push back against a law you disagreed with?
Would you openly defy the law?
Would you be willing to violate your oath of office?
Would you go so far as to badger those who favored enforcement of the law?
Until today, those questions earned a shameful “yes” in the Newtown clerk’s office, where officials for six months illegally withheld access to death certificates after deciding their personal sense of right and wrong trumped the statutory demands of their office.
This morning, the clerks finally relented, turning over dozens of heartbreaking photocopies bearing witness to the sad duty of doctors in the Chief State Medical Examiner’s Office to apply, over and over, a clinical description to the violence that stole so many innocent lives.
As I write this, a reporter is driving back from Newtown with the documents. When they arrive, they’ll be somberly analyzed for anything that might improve our understanding of that awful day – though it’s not likely the sparse documents will do much to peel back the mystery. We will wince at the now-familiar names, and think of the parents that we have come to know, but don’t really know. We’ll do our best to avoid flashes of the terror inside that school. And then the documents will be filed, along with hundreds or thousands of other sheets of paper amassed in our investigation and coverage of this obviously important, internationally significant story. [Update: Courant editors tell me that, following a review of the death certificates, no story will be written based on their content.]
That is what we will do with the records. And the town should have given them to us as soon as we asked last December. Continue reading
The Society of Professional Journalists has stepped into the debate over concealing portions of the investigative report into the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, sending a letter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy denouncing a secretly drafted bill that would block public access to crime-scene photographs, 911 recordings and death certificates related to the massacre.
“The Society condemns the creation of this legislation outside the normal, transparent process of public hearings and debate. And we deplore the attempt to use the tragic events of Dec. 14 as an excuse to close off access to records that are otherwise available to the public,” SPJ President Sonny Albarado and Connecticut chapter President Jodie Mozdzer Gil wrote to Malloy.
The legislation was drafted out of concern for relatives of those killed at the school, who might be traumatized by widespread distribution of grisly images if crime-scene photographs were released. Transparency advocates, however, have bristled at the breadth of the proposed bill.
“This legislation does not honor the victims of the Newtown shooting, and the tragedy should not be used as an excuse to close access to public documents, the release of which does not change the circumstances surrounding the Newtown massacre,” the letter states. “In fact, their release could debunk conspiracy theories and provide lessons worth learning.”
The legislature could vote on the bill this week, though Albarado and Mozdzer Gill are asking for a delay until public hearings can be held.
The full text of their letter is below.
During the budget battles in Washington in the spring of 2011, a liberal group produced an ad featuring an elderly woman in a wheelchair being pushed through a park by a man in a suit and tie, while America the Beautiful plays in the background and words on the screen tout the Medicare program. But the placid scene takes a decidedly sinister turn, as the on-screen narration states that “Republicans now want to privatize Medicare.” Suddenly, the man in the suit veers off the path, wheels the distressed woman toward a rocky overlook, and dumps her off a cliff.
OK, so perhaps nothing in Connecticut this political season went that completely over the edge. But in the bruising Senate race between Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon, there were certainly moments when honesty and accuracy went on holiday as the candidates scraped for every vote. With the election a few days away, here’s a recap of some of the claims made during the race. Continue reading
When political candidates find themselves in hot water, they occasionally retreat to bunker mode, declining to talk about the controversy any further and wagering that silence will ultimately make the story run its course sooner. That, of course, provides a big opening to opponents to hammer away with questions about the politician’s conduct and character.
But having questions is not the same thing as having answers. And that distinction is highlighted by a pair of ads from Linda McMahon’s Senate campaign that focus on a home-equity line of credit her challenger Chris Murphy received 16 months after being sued for missing payments on his mortgage. One of the ads fairly raises questions about the circumstances of the home loan, while the other makes factual assertions of wrongdoing that the McMahon campaign cannot at this point support. Continue reading