I was curious about the fact that there seems to have been no subsequent news about the effort to blackmail Mitt Romney about his past tax returns.
I wrote about the initial claim by a group that they had got into the offices of the accounting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers and obtained Romney’s past tax returns and were going to publicly release them unless they got a ransom of one million dollars in bitcoins by September 28.
Naturally, this is being investigated (apparently by the Secret Service) but there have been no updates from any of the parties concerned: the Romney camp (understandably), the blackmailers, or the investigators.
Which raises the interesting question: If September 28 comes with no revelations, how will we distinguish whether there was nothing there or whether a ransom was secretly paid by the Romney camp or, even more troubling, by a wealthy individual to get the information, someone who would now have a major hold over him if he should become president?
While thinking about this, it struck me that I don’t understand the laws surrounding blackmail or extortion when the threat is the release of information as opposed to physical violence. If it is not in general a crime to exchange information for money, why is it a crime to not release information for money? Note that the issue of whether the information is true or defamatory or causes harm is a separate one from that of its release. After all, Romney can hardly argue that his legal tax returns are defamatory although they may cause him political harm.
Matt Yglesias speculates that since 2009 was the year that the IRS gave an amnesty to people to declare their previously secret Swiss bank accounts without fear of prosecution, this may be why Romney is refusing to release his 2009 and earlier returns. (The comments to that post make for interesting reading, especially the first one by someone named slate22.)
According to this Wikipedia article (citations and links removed):
From a libertarian perspective, blackmail is not always considered to be something that should be treated as a crime. Some libertarians point out that it is licit (in the United States at this moment in time) to gossip about someone else’s secret, to threaten to publicly reveal such information, and to ask a person for money, but it is illegal to combine the threat with the request for money. They say this raises the question, “Why do two rights make a wrong?”
Furthermore, if a third party were to pay the ransom and get the Romney tax returns, would that person be guilty of a crime?
Whatever the legalities, Bill Allison of The Sunlight Foundation examines the disturbing possibilities that can arise in an era of secret political slush funds when a politician has a big secret.