In early September, when the Democratic National Convention was underway in Charlotte, N.C. and the presidential race was hitting full stride, a brief stir was created by what many people presumed to be an elaborate hoax. In statements posted online, an anonymous person or group claimed to have stolen tax documents belonging to Mitt and Ann Romney from a PricewaterhouseCoopers office in Franklin, Tenn., and further claimed to have put encrypted copies of the documents on thumb drives and sent those thumb drives out in the mail.
A ransom was demanded ($1 million in Bitcoins, a virtual currency), a deadline was set (Sept. 28), actual envelopes containing actual thumb drives actually turned up (at the offices of the Williamson County, Tenn. Democratic and Republican parties), and the Secret Service got involved (a spokesman told TPM the agency was “investigating the incident.”) But then the deadline came and went, the Romneys’ tax returns did not become public (despite the fact that, presumably, no ransom was paid), and the whole thing became a small, odd, nearly forgotten footnote in the story of the campaign.
Recently, though, a Tennessee man has come forward to say that the Secret Service has been investigating him in connection with the case. He has taken the unusual step of publicly identifying himself as the target of a federal probe because, he says, he is innocent. And he wants his stuff back.
According to Franklin, Tenn. resident Michael Brown, Secret Service agents raided his home on the morning of Sept. 14, about two weeks after the anonymous posts started circulating on the website Pastebin.com.
“[They] shined flashlights in our faces to awaken us and then grabbed my wife and myself literally by the wrists, pulling us from our bed and handcuffed us behind our backs,” Brown wrote in a statement he has posted online. “Because my wife was wearing her night clothes, the agents removed her from our bedroom and searched her person. We were unable to comfort our ten-year old daughter whom we could hear in another room or tend to our eight-month old daughter; both children being awakened by strangers entering their dark rooms.”
Equipped with a search and seizure warrant issued by a federal court in Nashville, Tenn., the agents confiscated what Brown has described as “virtually all of the equipment and software I use for my business.” (Brown, 34, is a self-employed computer guy, who, The Daily reported, did IT work for President Obama’s 2008 campaign.) In the search warrant, which was placed under seal by a court order but which Brown has posted online, the property to be seized included all evidence of records and information related to “tax information of Willard M Romney and Anne (sic) D Romney” and “access to the computer network of PricewaterhouseCoopers.”
A few weeks after the raid, Brown decided to go public. He set up a website, where he is soliciting funds to pay for legal fees and support his family, and he has given several interviews to media outlets.
“The main reason of putting it out there is to force either the secret service or US attorney to press charges to actually make a case with what they claim to have and not hide behind a seal,” Brown wrote in an email to TPM. “Otherwise return everything and move on.”
What led the feds to Brown is still unclear. Brown says he knows of three other people who have had property seized in connection with the case. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nashville is not saying much beyond confirming the existence of the investigation, and it only took that step because the story had “pretty much been out there,” as a spokesman told TPM this week. The Secret Service did not respond to several requests for comment.
Complicating matters is the fact that some of the materials made public by Brown highlight some strange links between him and the case.
For one thing, there are the cats. Among the pieces of evidence included in the search warrant released by Brown are two black and white images of house cats. The images, according to Brown, were found on one of the thumb drives mailed out with the ransom notes. And the Secret Service at first thought the cats were Brown’s. Brown has maintained that they are not his cats — they are the cats of a family friend. Brown told the Tennessean “he removed a virus from that person’s computer about three years ago and may have lost the flash drive he used to back up the owner’s data.”
Brown also has a history with Bitcoins, the virtual currency demanded in the ransom notes. A 2011 Wired article noted that a username used by Brown, KnightMB, owned 371,000 bitcoins, which were worth several million dollars at their peak. On the website he set up, Brown is soliciting donations in both Bitcoins and Timekoin, an “open encrypted electronic currency system” he created.
And that morning in September wasn’t the first time Brown has been paid a visit by federal agents. As The Daily has reported, agents raided Brown’s home in 2009, “in a case related to the theft of data from an insurance company.” Brown was not charged.
So far, Brown’s fundraising has not had much success. He told TPM he has received $100, with all the money coming from donors outside the United States. Brown suspects he’s had to compete for people’s attention.
“Given the recent hurricane Sandy was big in the news at the same time my story started to run in newspapers and TV, it’s not surprising to me that people would rather donate to the hurricane relief,” Brown wrote. “So other than all the messages of support from people, it is going about as can be expected given the circumstances right now.”
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com