FAFSA Hacker Targeted Trump Tax InfoMay 21, 2017 |
by Jamaal Abdul-Alim
The person accused of a 2016 attempt to use a web-based federal student-aid tool to illegally obtain taxpayer information is a Louisiana-based private investigator who used the tool to target then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, court records obtained by Diverse show.
The records allege that when Jordan Hamlett, 31, met FBI agents in the atrium of the Embassy Suites in Baton Rouge, he “immediately volunteered that he had committed the crime and he even sounded proud of what he had done.”
The records allege that Hamlett “unlawfully attempted to obtain Trump’s federal tax information from the U.S. Department of Education and IRS using the web application Federal Student Aid – Datashare.” The application enables students to more easily fill out the FAFSA — or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
By using the tool students could have their IRS data automatically populated into the FAFSA. The Federal Student Aid — Datashare (FSA-D) application was shut down in March 2017 due to security concerns. FSA-D is the IRS’s internal name for the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, better known as the IRS DRT.
The fact that Hamlett is described in court records as a private investigator raised questions about his possible motive.
“Do you think the whole DRT problem might have just been folks trying to get Trump’s tax records?” wondered one former Department of Education official from the Obama administration, speaking in reference to unheeded requests for Trump to disclose his tax returns.
Others in Washington say inquiries about the matter are met with silence.
“I have made a couple of meek attempts just to understand the issue and people run away in horror,” one D.C. insider said. “I think the IRS connection and the possibility of criminal penalties has scared everyone into complete silence.”
Another curious aspect of the case is despite the fact that it led to the shutdown of a widely-used web-based tool that has been described as the “cornerstone of federal financial aid simplification,” surprisingly little — if anything — has been reported about the case.
An online search for news articles about Hamlett in The Advocate — the local newspaper in Baton Rouge — and the Times-Picayune of New Orleans — yielded no results. A Google search also turned up no stories that connect Hamlett to the DRT data breach.
The disabling of the IRS DRT — which the National College Access Network says took place “at the height of the FAFSA submission cycle” — has impacted countless students who had planned to use the tool to apply for federal student aid, advocates testified recently on Capitol Hill.
“The DRT outage harms students and families in multiple ways, making the FAFSA more difficult to complete, making more students subject to verification, and leaving families with fewer available financial aid office resources for help navigating the financial aid process,” Justin S. Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, or NASFAA, testified earlier this month before the U.S. House committee on oversight and government reform.
At the same hearing, Timothy P. Camus, deputy inspector general for investigations at the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, alluded to the Hamlett case but did not mention Hamlett by name, nor did he indicate that then-presidential candidate Trump was the target.
Instead, Camus only mentioned that TIGTA “detected an attempted access to the AGI of a prominent individual.”
“AGI” is “adjusted gross income” — and is a key piece of information in order to process a tax return, whether fraudulently or legitimately.
The DRT allows students and parents to access their AGI through an “interface with the IRS to complete the FAFSA by transferring the AGI information directly into their FAFSA application form,” Camus explained.
“It appears that identity thieves used personal information of individuals that they obtained outside the tax system to start the FAFSA application process in order to secure the AGI tax information through the DRT,” Camus testified. “The IRS’ current estimate for the number of impacted taxpayers is approximately 100,000.”
Camus stated that when TIGTA investigated the attempted access of the AGI for the “prominent individual,” that TIGTA determined that the FAFSA application and the DRT were used in the attempt.
Camus said a subsequent investigation “identified the individual responsible for the attempted access and he was arrested” and that the case was “still proceeding through the court system.”
Diverse has since learned from sources that the case Camus was referring to is that of Hamlett. The case — formally known as United States of America versus Jordan Hamlett — is being prosecuted in the United States District Court Middle District of Louisiana, according to online records obtained through PACER, an online federal court database.
The records indicate that Hamlett’s indictment was originally sealed, which might explain why the case has received so little publicity until now.
Diverse learned about the federal case from a source late Friday. Diverse currently has a Freedom of Information Act request with TIGTA regarding the case.
Efforts to reach Hamlett over the weekend were unsuccessful. Court records indicate that Hamlett has been a private investigator for about nine years.
Hamlett’s case is one of the earliest indications that federal authorities had of a potential flaw in the DRT that could allow identity thieves to illegally obtain other people’s tax information.
Camus stated further that in November 2016, his agency noticed “another attempted access of the same prominent individual’s AGI through the FAFSA and the DRT, this time, from an entirely different location.”
“This activity is still under investigation,” Camus said at the time.
Court records reveal only scant information about Hamlett’s case. One of the transcripts in the case remains sealed.
The records indicate that Hamlett is charged with false representation of a social security number, a felony. The indictment states that Hamlett attempted to enter a Social Security Number ending with four digits that were not consistent with his own social security number to create a FAFSA ID. The last four digits were consistent with a Social Security Number that the “hackivist” group Anonymous released last year and which the group said belonged to Donald Trump.
The records indicate that FBI agents interviewed Hamlett on October 27 — several weeks after Hamlett allegedly tried to obtain Trump’s tax information on September 13.
“Agents testified that the Defendant was cooperative and that their interview of him was conversational, friendly, and congenial,” court records state. “As one agent put it, it was ‘almost like friends talking in a sense.’”
The records also indicate that Hamlett “had become familiar and had discussions with law enforcement, including the FBI and sheriff’s office,” through his work as a private investigator.
Hamlett was arrested in November in connection with the case and released on condition that he be monitored. He also was ordered not to use the any Internet capable device, although the order was later amended to include “computer monitoring,” court records state.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.Semantic Tags: Diversity • Education • Educational Finance • Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) • Institutions/Organizations • Jordan Hamlett • Law • President Donald Trump • Students