Anonymous thief claims to have stolen Romney tax returns, demands $1m

Tax returns will be released if Romney doesn't pay up – or if someone else pays up first.

Well this could get interesting.

An anonymous person or persons on the internet (that most credible of sources) claims to have broken into a Tennessee branch of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and stolen copies of Mitt Romney's tax returns. In their first message, released on Sunday, they write:

Romney's 1040 tax returns were taken from the PWC office 8/25/2012 by gaining access to the third floor via a gentleman working on the 3rd floor of the building. Once on the 3rd floor, the team moved down the stairs to the 2nd floor and setup shop in an empty office room. During the night, suite 260 was entered, and all available 1040 tax forms for Romney were copied. A package was sent to the PWC on suite 260 with a flash drive containing a copy of the 1040 files, plus copies were sent to the Democratic office in the county and copies were sent to the GOP office in the county at the beginning of the week also containing flash drives with copies of Romney's tax returns before 2010. A scanned signature image for Mitt Romney from the 1040 forms were scanned and included with the packages, taken from earlier 1040 tax forms gathered and stored on the flash drives.

The group will release all available files to the public on the 28 of September, 2012

A follow-up message, released on Tuesday, turns the story from a threat to blackmail attempt. The author demands $1m – in bitcoins! – or they will release the returns. They also offer to guarantee the release of the returns if they are sent $1m to a different bitcoin account:

All major news media outlets are going to be sent an encrypted copy of the most recent tax years that your company had on file since you did not have them all in a convenient electronic form. The years before 2010 will be of great interest to many. If the parties interested do not want the encrypted key released to the public to unlock these documents on September 28 of this year then payment will be necessary.

The deal is quite simple. Convert $1,000,000 USD to Bitcoins (Google if if you need a lesson on what Bitcoin is) using the various markets available out in the world for buying. Transfer the Bitcoins gathered to the Bitcoin address listed below. 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.

Is it real? PWC have released a not-quite-denial, but confirmed that they are working with the Secret Service, so someone is taking it seriously:

We are aware of the allegations that have been made regarding improper access to our systems. We are working closely with the United States Secret Service, and at this time there is no evidence that our systems have been compromised or that there was any unauthorized access to the data in question.

Interestingly, while the thief claims to have sent proof to the county Republican and Democratic parties, TPM reports that neither of the groups have actually used the USB drives they were sent:

Burr, the Democratic Party Chairman, said he had kept the USB drive in his briefcase. At one point, Burr said, he considered plugging the drive into an old computer, but he said the “last thing I wanted to do was plug it in to a computer that I cared about.”

The Secret Service is now in possession of the drives, leaving the one loose thread dangling. What was on them? Will we ever know?

Update

Seperately, however, something more obviously hoaxy is going around. This image is almost certainly not of Mitt Romney's tax return:

Quite apart from giveaways like the fact that Mitt Romney's accountant ought to be fired for running $20m as "business income", when he could have saved $4m in taxes by marking it up as "capital gains" instead, the return is also incredibly easily faked. Here, for instance, is the 2003 return for Mr A. Hitler:

Other giveaways include the fact that Romney's actually released forms were filled in with a typewriter, not a laser printer, and that the numbers in the fake return don't actually add up. Literally. There is $343,332 missing from the "total" column.

Mitt Romney waves to the people. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.