March 2, 2024

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland previously testified at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Funds for Commerce, Justice, Science and Allied Agencies on the proposed 2022 budget for the Department of Justice on June 9, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Susan Walsh | AFP | Getty Images

Attorney General Merrick Garland told lawmakers Wednesday that investigating the source of a massive taxpayer information leak behind an article by investigative news agency ProPublica will be one of its top priorities.

“I promise it will be at the top of my list,” Garland assured Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, during a budget hearing before the Senate Grants Committee.

The former federal judge said he knew nothing at the moment but what he had learned from reading the long article that revealed that in recent years billionaires like Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, Tesla boss Elon Musk and businessmen Michael Bloomberg , Carl Icahn and George Soros paid no federal income taxes.

“Senator, I take this as seriously as you do. I remember very well what was President [Richard] Nixon did it in the Watergate period – making lists of enemies and punishing people by checking their tax returns, ”Garland said. “This is extremely serious business. People are of course entitled to a great deal of privacy with regard to their tax returns. “

The ProPublica article, which is expected to be the first in a series, did not reveal how the journalists obtained the tax records, and the outlet did not respond to a request for comment. The article said the research was based on “an enormous treasure trove of data from the Internal Revenue Service on the tax returns of thousands of the richest people in the country, covering more than 15 years.”

The article adds that the tax strategies used by the ultra-rich individuals quoted appeared to be perfectly legal. The investigation is said to “destroy the cornerstone of the American tax system: everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most.”

The outlet published a separate article defending its decision to publish the private records.

Tax information is generally confidential and those who disclosed the documents can be prosecuted.

Garland said he believed IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig was working on the matter.

“He said their inspectors were working on it, and I’m sure that means it will go to the Justice Department,” Garland said. “This was on my list of things to raise after I finished preparing for this hearing.”

Rettig said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday that he shared “every American’s concern about the sensitive and private nature and confidentiality of information received by the IRS.”

Garland’s comments came as the Justice Department, acting on President Joe Biden’s orders, sought to move away from the aggressive tactics used against journalists and media organizations under former President Donald Trump and previous administrations.

On Saturday, the ministry said it would refrain from confiscating reporters’ records when investigating leaks, “in alteration of its longstanding practice.” Last month, Biden called this practice “simply wrong” even though his position had not yet been formalized as a guideline.

Also on Wednesday, Garland defended the Justice Department against criticism from the left that it was not moving fast enough to distance itself from the Trump administration.

On Monday, the ministry filed a controversial letter to effectively defeat a case against Trump by columnist E. Jean Carroll who claims Trump defamed her when he denied the rape. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Asked Garland, “How does this come about.”

“Are these criticisms justified?” Leahy asked.

“I know the criticisms,” Garland replied. “The Justice Department’s role in making legal decisions is not to assist a previous or current government. Our job is to represent the American people. “

Sometimes, Garland said, “we have to make a decision about the law that we would never have made and that we strictly disagree with on political grounds.”

Subscribe to CNBC Pro for the TV livestream, deep insights and analytics.