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Secret Service Investigates Claim That Romney's Tax Returns Were Stolen

The Secret Service is looking into a claim that hackers stole several years' worth of tax returns filed by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
The Secret Service is looking into a claim that hackers stole several years' worth of tax returns filed by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Investigators are working to determine the legitimacy of a claim that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's tax records have been stolen from an accounting firm's records.

Naming a million-dollar price, an anonymous ransom note was sent to accounting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers. The letter, which was also posted online, gets right to the point: "Using your Office... we were able to gain access to your network file servers and copy over the tax documents for one Willard M Romney and Ann D Romney."

The note's author signs off with a perky "Cheers!"

The security breach was supposedly orchestrated at a Pricewaterhouse Coopers office in Franklin, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville. As news of the potential ransom situation spread, the financial services firm said on Twitter Wednesday, "We are working with the Secret Service. At this time, there is no evidence of unauthorized access to our data."

On Facebook, the firm stated that it had found "no evidence that our systems have been compromised or that there was any unauthorized access to the data in question."

According to The Tennessean, police have no record of a break-in at the accounting firm's office in the past month. But the newspaper says that packages containing ransom information and flash memory drives were delivered to the Williamson County Republican Party's offices, as well as its Democratic offices. It seems that neither group tried to access the data.

Also included in the packages, according to the ransom letter, was an image of Romney's signature from the 1040 tax return documents.

The letter's author states, "The deal is quite simple. Convert $1,000,000 USD to Bitcoins.... It does not matter if small amounts or one large amount is transferred, as long as the final value of the Bitcoins is equal to $1,000,000 USD at the time when it is finished. The keys to unlock the data will be purged and what ever is inside the documents will remain a secret forever."

The money is due by Sept. 28, according to the note. Party officials in Tennessee were skeptical.

"A million dollars seemed kind of low," Jean Barwick, county Republican Party executive director tells The Tennessean. "If you're going to go for a million, why not go for $100 million."

Williamson Democratic Party spokesman Gary Moore called the scheme "preposterous," before admitting that the coordinated deliveries might make the threat more believable.

Legitimate or not, the Secret Service is investigating the threat made to Pricewaterhouse Coopers and the Republican candidate. Nashville's City Paper, which first reported the story, reports that the federal agency has seized the packages and the thumb drives they included.

A copy of the ransom note and another letter were placed on Pastebin, a site often used by programmers to share text or code. The letters' author does not clarify how many years' worth of tax returns were allegedly obtained, stating only that they include dates before 2010 — a period of time for which Romney has said he won't be publicly releasing his tax returns.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Pastebin file had been viewed nearly 15,000 times. One letter describes an elaborately staged break-in, going into detail to explain how access to the building was gained — the "team" went to a third-floor office, for instance, then downstairs to an office on the same floor as the Pricewaterhouse Coopers location, according to the note.

The alleged hackers say that anyone — representatives from the accounting firm, or the Republican or Democratic parties — can pay the money. Two Bitcoin addresses were given; one to stop the release of the data, and another to "promote full release."

A separate note states that the flash drives will be sent to major media outlets, as well.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.