The man considered to be the mastermind behind an attempt to hack the IRS to get Donald Trump’s tax returns appeared in federal court Thursday to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of computer fraud.
Andrew J. Harris, of Center City, is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 16 by U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe. Harris, who now manages a Domino’s Pizza, could be sentenced to two years in federal prison and a $200,000 fine.
A Louisiana private investigator was sentenced to 18 months in April 2018 for the same crime.
In the days before the November 2016 election, Harris, then a junior at Haverford College, came within a hair’s breadth of prising Trump’s tax returns from a government database.
Nearly three years later, Harris, 24, admitted Thursday that he used a student financial aid site in a failed attempt to access Trump’s most-guarded financial documents.
Harris’ lawyer called the plan a college prank.
“This was a Wayne’s World scene gone awry,” said Harris’ lawyer, William J. Brennan Jr., referring to the 1990s comedy films about two good-hearted teenage dreamers with a gnarly public-access TV show and not a lot of smarts.
In a previous interview with the Washington Post, Brennan had described the two students as Beavis and Butt-head, two snickering MTV cartoon characters without an ounce of brains between them. He regrets that comparison. “They were Wayne and Garth in a blue Pacer with a dumb idea and a mixed run of luck.”
In a statement, U.S. Attorney William McSwain said, “No matter what you think about the president’s tax returns, clearly this kind of illegal activity cannot be tolerated or condoned. Unauthorized or false attempts to obtain any citizen’s IRS filings are a serious violation of privacy rights and a federal crime, and there’s nothing funny about it. Now this un-funny plot has branded both Harris and his cohort, Justin Hiemstra, with federal criminal convictions that they deserve.”
In the run-up to the election, Trump had refused to provide his returns to the public, claiming he was under audit. “You don’t learn anything from a tax return,” Trump said.
Every major party nominee since the late 1970s has released tax returns before Election Day, according to FactCheck.org. It’s a way of exposing potential conflicts of interests and “a form of checking on how a candidate conducts his financial affairs.”
Trump still maintains that his tax returns should remain secret. A move by California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, would require the president to release five years of returns if he wants to appear on that state’s 2020 primary presidential ballot.
Harris, formerly of Chicago, previously had filed an application for federal student aid and noticed that the government form would redirect to the IRS and import his own tax returns automatically.
Harris and his fellow classmate, Hiemstra, wondered what would happen if they posed as one of Trump’s offspring. They wanted to use an application for aid to land the returns and scoop the nation’s biggest newspapers. Tiffany Trump had graduated in May 2016 from the University of Pennsylvania and had announced she was going to law school at Georgetown University. It could work.
Six days before the election, Harris and Hiemstra went to Haverford’s computer lab and logged in using another student’s credentials.
They accessed a Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). When they attempted to register under the name of Trump’s daughter, they were stunned to discover that an application under that name already existed. They didn’t know it, but the Louisiana private eye, Jordan Hamlett, had made a stab several weeks earlier at hacking the same information. That meant they had to reset the password.
Using Google, Harris and Hiemstra found Trump’s Social Security number and date of birth. Those answers got them within a single question of gaining access to the tax records. Stymied four times on the final security question, the students gave up.
What they didn’t realize was that the Department of Education was monitoring all traffic on the FAFSA site. The failed attempt sent up a red flag. The IRS dispatched federal investigators to Haverford shortly after. Harris and Hiemstra admitted to their roles in the scuttled scheme.
“The collateral effect of this college prank was [Harris] was kicked out of school,” said Brennan, the defense lawyer. Hiemstra, a Fulbright Scholar from Minnesota, was allowed to graduate. “My client is very remorseful and wishes neither the president nor his family any ill will, and realizes that this prank could have been devastating to many people.”
Both men agreed to plead guilty to using another student’s credentials to access a Haverford computer without permission and to another count of attempting to access the tax returns of a taxpayer, without authorization, from the Internal Revenue Service.
Rufe released Harris on his own recognizance, ordered him to undergo a mental-health evaluation, and forbade Harris from leaving the Eastern District of Pennsylvania pending sentencing.