A few days before the 2016 presidential election, two college students outside Philadelphia hatched a plan to access Donald Trump’s tax returns, federal prosecutors say. They were unsuccessful, and now one of them has pleaded guilty to federal charges in what one defense lawyer calls a “college prank gone awry.”
Justin Hiemstra, 22, of St. Paul Park, Minnesota, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges Tuesday in federal court in Philadelphia. He’ll be sentenced Dec. 16.
Hiemstra and a second defendant, Andrew Harris, were students at Haverford College outside Philadelphia when Harris approached Hiemstra about getting Trump’s tax information, according to court documents.
Using a Haverford computer lab, the students opened a fraudulent federal financial aid application in the name of an unnamed Trump family member, prosecutors said. The students managed to reset a password, and, using Trump’s Social Security number and date of birth, repeatedly tried to import Trump’s federal tax information into the application, according to court documents.
The U.S. Department of Education and IRS detected the attempts.
Trump has long refused to release his tax returns, saying they are under audit.
“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,” U.S. Attorney William McSwain, a Trump appointee, said in a statement Tuesday.
Hiemstra’s lawyer, Michael van der Veen, said in an interview that his client — a Fulbright scholar with no prior record — and Harris “as much wanted to see if it could be done as do it. They didn’t give it much forethought and they certainly didn’t consider consequences.”
The lawyer added: “But for this fluke, he is level-headed, socially conscious, and he stood up today in court and took full responsibility for his conduct.”
Harris, the other defendant, also hopes to resolve the case with a plea, according to his lawyer, William J. Brennan.
“This is a college prank that just went awry,” Brennan said. “He certainly has no ill will or malice toward the president of the United States and his family, and he is very remorseful for any inconvenience he caused him.”