Hunter Biden suit claims IRS wrongly shared personal data

FILE - President Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden leaves after a court appearance, July 26, 2023, in Wilmington, Del. Hunter Biden has filed a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service, arguing that two agents violated his right to privacy when they publicly aired his tax information as they pressed claims that a federal investigation into him had been improperly handled. The lawsuit filed Monday says that his personal tax details shared during congressional hearings and interviews was not allowed by whistleblower protections. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

WASHINGTON -- Hunter Biden sued the Internal Revenue Service on Monday, claiming that two agents publicly alleging tax-probe interference wrongly shared his personal information, a case that comes amid escalating legal and political struggles as the 2024 election looms.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, asserts that IRS investigators violated the agency's rules on taxpayer privacy and "targeted and sought to embarrass Mr. Biden via public statements to the media in which they and their representatives disclosed confidential information about a private citizen's tax matters."

His lawyers argue that whistleblower protections don't apply, but a lawyer for one agent said any confidential information released came under whistleblower authorization and called the suit a "frivolous smear."

The lawsuit marks the latest legal pushback from Biden as a long-running federal investigation into him unfolds against a sharply political backdrop. That includes an impeachment inquiry aimed at his father, President Joe Biden, seeking to tie him to his son's business dealings.

"Mr. Biden is the son of the President of the United States. He has all the same responsibilities as any other American citizen, and the IRS can and should make certain that he abides by those responsibilities," the suit states. "Similarly, Mr. Biden has no fewer or lesser rights than any other American citizen, and no government agency or government agent has free rein to violate his rights simply because of who he is."

The suit says the IRS hasn't done enough to halt the airing of his personal information. It seeks to "force compliance with federal tax and privacy laws" and damages of $1,000 for every unauthorized disclosure.

IRS supervisory special agent Greg Shapley, and a second agent, Joe Ziegler, have claimed there was a pattern of "slow-walking investigative steps" into Hunter Biden in testimony before Congress. They alleged that the prosecutor overseeing the investigation, Delaware U.S. Attorney David Weiss, didn't have full authority to bring charges in other jurisdictions.

Shapley and Ziegler have also told House Republicans that they believe the Justice Department inquiry into Hunter Biden's taxes was influenced by politics.

That claim has been disputed by Attorney General Merrick Garland and Weiss, who has overseen the case and was recently given special counsel status by Garland.

Shapley's counsel called the lawsuit a "frivolous smear" that sought to "intimidate any current and future whistleblowers."

Ziegler's lawyer said he will "continue to speak out" about what he considers "special treatment" for Hunter Biden in the handling of the case.

Neither Shapley "nor his attorneys have ever released any confidential taxpayer information except through whistleblower disclosures authorized by statute," Shapley's counsel said. "Once Congress released that testimony, like every American citizen, he has a right to discuss that public information."

The suit, filed by Biden's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, disputes that argument. Aside from the disclosures to Congress, the suit says, the agents and their lawyers made public other details about the investigation to the news media in more than 20 interviews and public statements. Some of those statements went beyond what the agents had told Congress, the suit said.

"Mr. Shapley and Mr. Ziegler went a step further and disclosed new allegations that had not previously been released by the committee on Ways and Means," the suit said. "For example, in a July 20, 2023, interview with Jake Tapper of CNN, Mr. Ziegler alleged for the first time publicly that he had recommended felony and misdemeanor charges for Mr. Biden for tax year 2017. Under oath, Mr. Ziegler had previously stated that he only recommended misdemeanor charges for Mr. Biden for tax year 2017."

Along with making claims that Biden received preferential treatment from the Justice Department, the IRS agents have disclosed details from the investigation that were potentially damaging to Biden and his father. Shapley told a House committee that a search warrant had uncovered evidence that Hunter Biden had invoked his father -- who was out of office at the time -- while pressing a Chinese businessperson to move ahead with a proposed energy deal.

"Tell the director that I would like to resolve this now before it gets out of hand, and now means tonight," Biden wrote, referring to other participants in the proposed deal. "And, Z, if I get a call or text from anyone involved in this other than you, Zhang, or the chairman, I will make certain that between the man sitting next to me and every person he knows and my ability to forever hold a grudge that you will regret not following my direction."

House Republicans have maintained that the investigators' disclosures to Congress were legal because they were revealing government corruption.

While the suit involves the IRS, it is not directly related to the Justice Department's investigation into Biden's conduct.

The GOP-controlled House Oversight Committee called the two agents "good people who did everything right to obtain whistleblower protection with the best interest of our country in mind," in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. The agents testified before the committee in July, and said their "investigation will continue."

The IRS declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The White House, meanwhile, has said that Joe Biden was not involved in his son's business affairs, and months of investigations have so far not unearthed significant evidence of wrongdoing by the elder Biden, who spoke often to his son and as vice president stopped by a business dinner with his son's associates.

The investigation into Hunter Biden dates back years, and he had been expected to strike a plea deal with prosecutors over the summer that included guilty pleas to misdemeanor charges of failing to pay his taxes on time. But that deal imploded during a July court hearing, and he was indicted days ago on federal firearms charges. He's accused of lying about his drug use to buy and briefly keep a gun in October 2018.

Republicans investigating his business dealings had decried the plea agreement that spared him jail time as a "sweetheart deal."

Biden's defense attorneys have indicated they plan to fight the charges, and the case could be on track toward a possible high-stakes trial. They also sent a letter to Weiss on Monday outlining similar complaints about investigative material that has been disclosed to the public during the investigation.

The new civil lawsuit filed in Washington alleges the improper disclosures included the specific tax years under investigation, deductions and allegations about liability.

Weiss eventually sought and was granted special counsel status last month, giving him broad authority to investigate and report out his findings. His prosecutors have indicated they could file new tax charges in Washington or California.

Information for this article was contributed by Lindsay Whitehurst and Fatima Hussein of The Associated Press and by Michael S. Schmidt of The New York Times.

  photo  FILE- President Joe Biden delivers remarks on recovery efforts for the Maui wildfires and the response to Hurricane Idalia, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, in Washington. The White House said Thursday that Congress should pass a short-term funding measure to ensure the government keeps operating after the current budget year ends Sept. 30. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)