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There's a second whistleblower complaint no one's talking about, and it could be as damaging to the US president as the Ukraine scandal

Tom Porter , Business Insider US
 Oct 03, 2019, 04:45 PM
President Donald J. Trump participates in a ceremonial Swearing-In of the Secretary of Labor Gene Scalia in the Oval Office at the White House on Monday, Sept 30, 2019 in Washington, DC.

  • The chairman of the House Ways and Means committee revealed recently that he received a whistleblower allegation of "inappropriate efforts" to influence the IRS tax audit of President Donald Trump.
  • Experts and former investigators told Insider the complaint could be the tipping point in the battle between House Democrats and Trump over obtaining his tax records, which he has long sought to hide.
  • The White House is currently grappling with another whistleblower complaint, alleging that a phone call in which Trump sought to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival violated the law.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

With Washington, D.C., embroiled in the fallout from whistleblower revelations that President Donald Trump pressured Ukraine's president to investigate a Democratic rival, another whistleblower scandal has received scant attention.

But experts say the second complaint has the potential to prove just as damaging for the president as the Ukraine controversy.

In a recent letter filed as part of his bid to obtain six years of the president's tax returns, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Richard Neal wrote that he received a credible complaint from a whistleblower at the end of July.

The complaint, he wrote, alleges an attempt to interfere in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) audit of President Donald Trump's tax returns.

At this stage, details are sparse. The identity of the whistleblower is unknown, as are the specifics of the complaint.

But experts and former prosecutors told Insider the complaint could land the president in legal jeopardy and, just as important, lead to the public release of the tax returns Trump has long shielded from public view.

Neal's bid for Trump's tax returns has exasperated some Democrats, who say it's been too modest and slow-moving. Instead of a sweeping bid for information on the president's financial affairs, Neal made the more narrow request that Congress be granted oversight of the IRS audit.

Not much is known about the process of auditing a president. Rules governing it were tightened after President Richard Nixon was accused of influencing the process.

"One of the things that came out Watergate was that [Nixon] and his office had tried to use the IRS to go after political enemies," Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who was part of the team that convicted the Gambino crime family boss John Gotti, told Insider.

In the wake of the scandal, Congress passed a law making it a crime for any member of the executive branch to cause or terminate an IRS audit.

Because presidential candidates have voluntarily released records in the last several decades, the executive audit process has received little attention since Nixon.

But Neal argued in his filing that the existing guidelines are insufficient because of the vast powers of the presidency, and that the president's tax records therefore need congressional oversight.

If Neal's demand is granted, he'll be given access to the president's tax records, which opponents believe could expose wrongdoing by Trump.

The Treasury Department has so far blocked Neal's request, arguing that the Massachusetts Democrat isn't seeking oversight for sound reasons, but in an effort to damage the president's reputation.

Trump has been at the center of several financial scandals. The New York Times reported last year that Trump used a series of dubious tax schemes to shield a $400 million inheritance from the IRS.

And in September, Mother Jones published an investigation that found Trump may have fabricated a loan to avoid paying $50 million in income taxes.

But Trump has long maintained that he has committed no financial or tax crimes. He has said he can't release his tax returns because they are under audit, even though there is no rule to prevent him doing so.

Richard Neal (D-MA), speaks during a news conference held by House Democrats condemning the Trump Administration's targeting of the Affordable Care Act's pre-existing condition, in the US Capitol on June 13, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Daniel Shaviro, the Wayne Perry Professor of Taxation at NYU Law School, told Insider that the new whistleblower complaint means Neal's strategy could yet prove to be a winning one.

"Specific grounds for concern about audit interference would appear to me to make the legal case for discovery [of the tax records] overwhelming," he said in an email, adding that he "considered it exceptionally strong even without the complaint."

But, despite the strength of the case, and the whistleblower's evidence, he warned that Neal's attempts could yet get bogged down in legal disputes.

"The wild card here is that we don't know how partisan judges who view themselves as loyal Republicans will respond even to clear legal issues," Shaviro said.

There are other potential obstacles for Democrats. It's unclear whether the whistleblower complaint implicates Trump in breaking the law, or in a more minor fault.

Cotter said that if someone in the executive branch tried to either cause or terminate the audit on Trump, the vice president, or anyone else, it would be a felony.

He also pointed to a tax evasion statute that could apply, which makes it a crime to take any action to intentionally try to evade paying fair taxes.

"If you tried to interfere with an audit - the way that normally happens is people lie," he said. "So if someone were trying to interfere with an audit - and of course one of the purposes of the audit is to try to figure out how much you owe and collected - then you could be prosecuted for tax evasion."

It's also possible the complaint contains details about potential efforts to delay the mandatory IRS audit of Trump's tax returns.

"It's required that Trump be audited as president, and that should have happened years ago, within the first few days he took office," said Jeffrey Cramer, a longtime former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the Justice Department.

"We know Trump's in no hurry to get the audit done, because when that's finished, his excuse that he can't release his tax returns is finished, too."

"So one question worth asking is, has the Treasury Department or IRS done what they were required to do and audited the president and vice president?" he added. "Or is it possible Trump's audit is being slow-walked?"

The complaint could also pertain to the actual handling of the documents.

"The president's and vice president's tax returns are kept in a top-secret vault," Cramer said. "It's codeword protected, the whole nine yards, and not just anyone can get in there. There are very few people - the head of the Treasury, the head of the IRS - who have access."

Cramer noted, however, that many of the details about the complaint are still murky.

"Someone may have taken the official whistleblowing steps to file this, but it could just as easily be a pissed off IRS employee in Washington, DC, talking to a committee staffer," he said.

And, even if Neal does obtain the mysterious tax records, will they prove as damaging as many critics believe they could?

Steven M. Rosenthal, a Senior Fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center in Washington DC, testified before the Ways and Means committee about what Trump's tax returns might reveal.

He said they could provide answers for long-standing questions over whether Trump is involved in murky financial entanglements with foreign oligarchs. The information could strengthen the hand of Democrats seeking impeachment.

"What you might find are things like: Does the president have foreign accounts? Does the president have foreign partners? Does the president have foreign sourced income and from where?

"All of that might be important to unravelling whatever foreign entanglements the president has and continues to have by virtue of operating a global business," he told Insider in an interview.

"They might become used for purposes other than those [of oversight] Neal wants them for - they might be used to fill in the pieces of the puzzle, the puzzle of Trump, Trump's financial operation."

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