A Haverford College student who used a campus computer to attempt to hack into an IRS database to obtain Donald Trump’s tax returns days before the 2016 presidential election pleaded guilty Tuesday to two misdemeanor crimes in federal court.
Justin Hiemstra, 22, who finished his studies in May but will not get his degree until he completes a study-abroad program next May, told Judge Cynthia Rufe that he did not know what he would have done with the tax returns if he and classmate Andrew Harris had succeeded in obtaining them on Nov. 2, 2016.
“It was a time when Donald Trump’s tax returns were of interest,” said Hiemstra, a Fulbright Scholar who speaks fluent Russian.
“I don’t think that has changed,” Rufe responded.
Hiemstra, a native of St. Paul Park, Minn., pleaded guilty to accessing a computer without authorization and attempting to access a computer without authorization to obtain government information. The maximum sentence he faces for both crimes is two years in prison, two years of supervised release, and a $200,000 fine.
Rufe tentatively set a sentencing hearing for Dec. 16, but said she may reschedule it to allow Hiemstra to complete a Boren Scholarship program studying math and Russian in Kazakhstan. The U.S. Defense Department-funded program will begin Aug. 21 and end May 13, said Hiemstra’s lawyer, Michael van der Veen.
“My client is an intelligent, inquisitive, and idealistic young guy,” van der Veen told reporters after the hearing. “He thought that he could get the tax returns that were promised to him by the candidate.”
Hiemstra, who is free on bail, should be sentenced to a diversion program instead of prison, van der Veen said. “He’s a really nice young guy who had an error in judgment without very much forethought.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony J. Wzorek declined to say what sentence he would seek. He said Trump and everyone else deserves to have their privacy protected.
“If your tax returns were being accessed, or mine were, it’s just as important as Donald Trump’s tax returns. You file your tax returns, you assume they’re going to be kept private, they are kept private by the IRS. When people try to break into the website to obtain those tax returns it violates everybody’s rights,” Wzorek said after the hearing.
Wzorek said he did not oppose allowing Hiemstra to leave the country after pleading guilty because the charges are misdemeanors for which guidelines call for a minimal sentence.
Federal prosecutors said that six days before the 2016 election, Hiemstra and classmate Harris entered Haverford’s computer lab and attempted to obtain candidate Trump’s tax returns by filing a Free Application for Student Aid. Harris was familiar with the application process because he had recently completed an application himself.
If all the entered information on the FAFSA matches information on the previously filed-tax return, the application retrieves the previously filed tax return.
Hiemstra and Harris used another student’s login credentials to gain access to a computer, then opened a false FAFSA application in the name of a Trump family member. But they found that someone already had obtained the ID for Donald Trump and had set up a password.
Using “social engineering” and Google, the students guessed the answers to the challenge questions and reset the password. For reasons federal prosecutors did not explain, Hiemstra and Harris tried four times, but were unsuccessful when they tried to import Trump’s federal tax information.
“It’s surprising they didn’t catch them until four tries,” said David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize-winning tax journalist. “The IRS gets numerous intrusion attempts every day. Because of privacy concerns, they have extraordinary measures to identify who tries to look at their files.”
In addition, the U.S. Department of Education monitors and logs all activity related to the application process. Investigators traced the hack to the Haverford computer lab. Interviews with fellow students led the investigators to Hiemstra and Harris.