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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Who leaked Trump's tax returns?

The story about how Donald Trump's tax returns were leaked is as big news as the returns themselves.  Photo copies of them were mailed to New York Times reporter Susanne Craig anonymously.  The envelope had a return address for the Trump Organization.

The incident raises memories of when I participated in investigative reporting and what kind of leaked information forms the basis for major stories.   Copies of documents slipped to investigative teams,  usually through the mail,  received the most serious attention.  Documents usually record some official action.  As in the case of the New York Times with Trump's tax returns,  the reporters have to verify that the documents are authentic and have not been tampered with.  But with documents,  it is not essential to identify the source of information as it is with verbally transmitted information.  The documents are the source.  And generally,  there are many people who have access to documents so that the person who leaked them cannot be readily identified and made the victim of retaliation.

People are not reliable.  I have been given tips over the telephone,  in letters,  and sometimes in person.  Sometimes you can develop a source, such as Watergate's  Deep Throat, who give you accurate, reliable information.  But many people who give secret tips are those on missions of vengeance,  or are trying to instigate some kind of reaction,  or are conspiracy nuts.  One of my best sources was a man who had been a successful investment broker working for a firm from which another person was embezzling.  When the man got wind of what was going on and brought it up to the management,  he got fired. He reported what he knew to the state's attorney and the company was shut down,  people were brought to court,  and a lot of investors lost money.  The problem for the whistelblower was that no other companies would hire him.  He ended up taking a job on the cleaning crew for an office building in which there were investment firms and law offices.  On his own time,  he nurtured his own investments,  but as someone who kept his eyes and ears open and emptied waste paper baskets in key offices,  he recognized when financial companies were going shady.  He tipped off me and my reporting colleagues about business scams he became aware of with the agreement that we would never reveal the source of our information.   Vengeance was certainly part of  his motive,  but he was also driven by a strong belief that integrity should be a part of business.  After many years doing janitorial work,  a large corporation hired him because of his investment acumen,  where he  moved up to become a vice president,  and he retired to the Keys where he roamed in a yacht he had designed himself.

However,  for an investigative journalist,  informants are a burden.  You have to spend much time and energy determining if a source is reliable.  That is on top of the other procedures of verification.  Reputable journalists do not publish information  just on the word of a source.  When a person gave information on the condition that the he or she remain anonymous,  most newspapers required that the information be verified by at least two other sources or with documented verification.  The newspaper I worked for made the first priority an effort to find someone who could be identified as verifying the information.  If a story was important enough to publish with an undisclosed source,  it had to be approved by a phalanx of editors and publishers.  This procedure is demonstrated by the film "All the President's Men," the story in both book and film versions of how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein went through the verification process to uncover the Watergate story.

The criteria for using undisclosed sources has changed with the dominance of cable news and Internet sites.  A lot of stuff gets published that would never have been considered to meet the standards of the past.  I had worked on many stories that did not get published because the did not meet the level of verification required at the time.  

Donald Trump's tax returns went through a verification process that met those kind of standards.  A team of investigative journalists,  including some Pulitzer recipients, tracked down the tax accountant who prepared the returns and he verified their authenticity and accuracy.  

But who leaked them is still not known.  It was somebody, like Deep Throat, who was knowledgeable enough to include three versions that had been submitted to different agencies that had required the information. That person has some motive for revealing the real operations of Trump and his organization.  Documents have a veracity and a power that personal testimony does not have.

That is why South Dakota has so many rules that make it possible to hide documents or simply not create them in the first place.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States