The U.S. Secret Service is looking into claims that someone stole presidential nominee Mitt Romney's income tax returns and is threatening to release them if he doesn't pay up.Secret Service spokesman George Ogilvie told CNET today that the agency is investigating, but had no further comment. The claim was made in a post on the Pastebin site on Sunday that alleged that Romney's federal tax returns were taken from the offices of PriceWaterhouse Coopers in Frankin, Tenn., on August 25 by someone who snuck into the building and made copies of the document. The message author threatened to release the files publicly on September 28 and said copies of the files had been given to Democratic and Republican leaders in that county. Democrats have made Romney's refusal to release his tax returns a key point in their criticism that he is not in touch with working class voters.
Part of the message, which was not signed, reads:
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.
A follow up message posted yesterday said the files were accessed from the PWC network file servers and would be released in encrypted form to major news media outlets. The encrypted key to open the files would be released publicly unless Romney paid the hackers $1 million by transferring that amount -- in the virtual currency called Bitcoins -- to a specific account. However, if someone else wants the information to be released publicly sooner than that, they would need to transfer the same amount to a different Bitcoin account, the message said.
PricewaterhouseCoopers released a statement saying it had not found evidence of a system breach.
"We are aware of the allegations that have been made regarding improper access to our systems," statement said. "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."
Romney's campaign headquarters in Fairfax, Va., did not respond to a CNET request for comment. The news was first reported in The City Paper in Nashville.
Small, manila envelope with 4 GB thumb drive
Meanwhile, the offices of the Democratic and Republican parties in Williamson County where the PWC office is located received packages late last week with thumb drives, but it is unknown what was on the storage devices.
A package containing a sheet of paper with the hackers' message and a thumb drive arrived at the offices of the Williamson County Democratic Party in Franklin, Tennessee, last Thursday afternoon or early evening, Peter Burr, chairman of the county Democratic Party, told CNET today.
"The letter was pretty much the same as the original Pastebin post of Sunday but it also included a rubber stamp of what looked like Romney's signature at the bottom, according to Burr.
"We had an executive committee meeting at headquarters on Thursday night. When we arrived for the meeting we found this envelope on the floor, dropped through the mail slot," he said. "It was a small, manila envelope with bubble wrap lining." Handwritten in thick green marker was "Dem Party Ldrs" or something to that effect, he added.
"I opened it and found inside a piece of paper folded into quarters and a black Cruzer 4 gig thumb drive," Burr said. He said he handed over the package, letter and thumb drive to the Secret Service without making any copies or looking to see what was on the thumb drive.
"Unfortunately, I have nothing in the way of evidence that I can give you other than a representation of what the letter said," he added. "We almost threw the letter away. We passed it around and it drew some laughs."
Even if he suspected it was legit, Burr said he wouldn't have shared the contents of the thumb drive with the public.
"We considered this probably a scam and didn't really think much of it until these inquiries began happening today," he said. "Obviously, we would have no interest in obtaining information like this from a source like this as the Democratic Party. We're very interested in knowing what Mitt Romney's tax returns look like, but we would only be interested if it came from official sources."
Jean Barwick, executive director of the Williamson County Republican party, similarly described the package and contents that workers in her office found on the ground outside the front door last Friday morning.
"It didn't look credible," she said, explaining why she didn't report it to authorities until today. "It was handwritten with magic marker."