WASHINGTON — Assuming it's not a hoax, the purported theft of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's tax returns has all the trappings of a high-tech whodunit: a politically themed burglary, a $1 million demand in hard-to-trace Internet currency, password-protected data and a threat to reveal everything in three more weeks. But can it be believed?
The Secret Service and FBI were investigating the case Thursday after someone claimed to have burglarized a PricewaterhouseCoopers accounting office in Franklin, Tenn., and stolen two decades' worth of Romney's tax returns.
The claimed theft, made in an anonymous letter sent to the accounting firm and political offices in Tennessee, has surfaced a critical moment during the 2012 presidential campaign amid the Republican and Democratic conventions. The ransom target in the case — Romney's tax returns — was carefully selected: Romney, worth an estimated $250 million, has steadfastly declined to make public more than one year's tax returns so far, and Democrats have sought to portray him as so wealthy he is out of touch with middle class voters.
Authorities are studying computer thumb drives that were delivered with an unusual demand: a $1 million payment in "Bitcoin" Internet currency. The letter said the tax returns delivered on the thumb drives were encrypted, and more copies would be sent to "all major news media outlets." It promised to reveal the password to unlock the tax returns on Sept. 28 if payment is not made.
PricewaterhouseCoopers has said there was no evidence that anything was stolen.
The alleged culprit suggested an insider helped in the burglary and theft from the firm's network file servers, knowingly or unwittingly: "We are sure that once you figure out where the security breach was, some people will probably get fired, but that is not our concern," the letter said.
The plot in this mystery has enough holes that it could be an elaborate hoax. But it comes at a critical moment during the 2012 presidential campaign. In its broadest outlines, the case might be compared to Watergate, the 1972 political break-in that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. But unlike Watergate, which started with the arrest of bungling burglars traced to Republicans, the Tennessee case is a baffling mystery so far, without any clear suspects. There is no evidence Democrats were involved.
"I looked at the letter and thought, 'Who on earth thinks we're gullible enough to fall for this?'" said Peter Burr, chairman of the Williamson County Democratic Party, which received one of the thumb drives and a copy of the extortion letter last week. He kept the letter and data device, growing curious about them as days passed. He rightly feared the thumb drive might be infected with a computer virus.
"I had reached the point of seriously considering putting it in an old computer we have here in the office where we weren't worried if the hard drive got trashed or not," Burr said. "But by then we had received recommendations from our attorneys and word from the Secret Service. So we didn't look at it."
It was unclear even among experts whether the purported theft might be a hoax.