How an IRS leak changed historyaltered history

December 21, 2003|By JAY HANCOCK

JOHN O. Requard Jr. waited 30 years to say it: He didn't leak Richard M. Nixon's income tax information to the press.

And he thinks he knows who did.

Sure, Requard says, he was there in late 1972 or early 1973 when another young Internal Revenue Service guy passed around microfilm prints showing Nixon paid a pittance in tax on a $200,000 salary.

And yeah, he admits, he initially told IRS investigators he hadn't seen the prints - a misstatement that would haunt him.

But he wasn't the one who dished the information to Jack White of The Providence Journal, blowing another hole in the Nixon presidency and allowing White to win the Pulitzer Prize, says Requard, who recently retired from the IRS.

Although, now that he thinks about it, he kind of wishes he was.

The illegal disclosure of Nixon's tax data in the fall of 1973 is obscured by more famous contemporary leaks such as that of the Pentagon Papers or those dispensed by Watergate's Deep Throat.

But White's story was huge at the time. The IRS never leaked. And the shadow of suspicion it cast on the White House compelled almost all presidents afterward to disclose their tax returns even though they didn't have to.

"In the post-Watergate era presidents chose to do it voluntarily, to go above and beyond what was required, to show they were beyond reproach," says Joseph J. Thorndike, director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts, a Virginia nonprofit group. "Thanks to that guy," Thorndike said of the 1973 leaker, "they do release their tax returns now."

The era bubbled with subversion, even inside the IRS.

Requard, who lives in Bel Air, turned 25 in 1973 and had worked on the fruitless campaign of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern the year before.

He and his colleagues collected delinquent taxes from the slums of Washington, often seizing property from people who might not have enough to eat, and they hated it.

"We went after people for nickels and dimes," Requard remembers, "many of them poor and in many cases illiterate people who didn't know how to deal with a government agency."

And they knew Nixon was paying next to nothing.

The president already had public relations problems. The Watergate investigation was snowballing. Top aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman had been forced to resign in April 1973; former White House counsel John Dean was talking to investigators about the cover-up; and the existence of Nixon's secret Oval Office tapes became known in July.

On Sept. 11, The Sun helped put Nixon's taxes on the agenda with a story headlined, "Nixon data hint no taxes owed." The Sun's Adam Clymer had done some basic math and figured that Nixon's multiyear deduction for donating vice presidential papers valued at $570,000 would have all but erased any tax liability. Clymer knew the declared value of the papers, which was public, but he didn't know the amount of tax paid.

That surfaced less than a month later, on Oct. 3, with White's story. Citing "documents provided by government sources," White disclosed that Nixon paid only $792.81 in federal income tax in 1970 and $878.03 in 1971.

The story was pivotal. Disclosure of the paltry payments and the fact that Nixon had illegally backdated the document deduction added to the president's problems.

Congress would increase penalties for leaking taxpayer information. Subsequent presidents felt obliged to unveil their tax payments.

And John Requard landed in big trouble.

"Have you ever seen the President's 1970 or 1971 Federal Income Tax Returns?" said the paper questionnaire handed him by the IRS investigator, a scary guy in his 50s with thick glasses and a German accent. "Have you ever seen a computer printout, microfilm print, microfilm tape or any other record containing financial data taken from the President's 1970 or 1971 Federal Income Tax Return?"

And so forth. Requard wrote "No" for all 16 questions, went back to his desk and, he says, gradually recalled an event months earlier when a co-worker named Doug showed him a printout of Nixon's tax data.

Worried, Requard called Doug that night. Doug had been interrogated, too, and not only did he admit to seeing the tax printout, he told investigators Requard saw it too. Now deeply concerned, Requard told inspectors he had refreshed his memory. He wasn't the leaker, he said, but he had to change his statement.

"I thought I was going to be indicted," Requard recalled. "I thought I was going to be charged with a crime here."

Colleagues started avoiding him, although a few Nixon haters sidled over to congratulate him. Requard was eventually suspended for three weeks - on the day Nixon announced his resignation - even though months earlier newspapers reported that IRS gumshoes had fingered the unidentified leaker and forced him to resign.

Requard believes his tarnished reputation caused him to miss several promotions and hindered his career for years.

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