U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

IRS employee charged with leaking suspicious financial transactions to prominent lawyer and the media

Incident Details

Date of Incident
February 4, 2019

Leak Case

Alleged Recipient of Leak
Charged under Espionage Act
REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

The leaked financial records of Michael Cohen, former personal attorney to President Trump, were at the center of an investigation by the Department of Justice that resulted in probation for a former IRS analyst.

— REUTERS/Jeenah Moon
January 17, 2020 - Update

IRS analyst sentenced to probation for leaking documents about Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen

Former IRS analyst John Fry was sentenced to five years probation and issued a $5,000 fine on Jan. 17, 2020, after pleading guilty to the disclosure of unauthorized documents about President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen to a prominent attorney and at least one journalist.

Fry was charged by the Department of Justice in February 2019 with one count of unauthorized disclosure of suspicious activity reports, two counts of misuse of a computer and one count of unauthorized use of a social security number. Courthouse News Service reported that he faced a maximum 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

In August 2019, prosecutors dropped the other three charges and Fry agreed to plead guilty to one count of illegally disclosing sensitive information.

Prosecutors said his disclosures prompted news reports by The Washington Post and The New Yorker, according to The Post.

Editor's Note: This article was updated to reflect Fry was sentenced to five years probation, not five months.

February 4, 2019

An IRS employee, John Fry of San Francisco, was charged by the Department of Justice with “unlawful disclosure of Suspicious Activity Reports” involving overseas financial transactions of President Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen to a prominent attorney and at least one reporter.

Fry is at least the sixth government employee charged by the Trump administration in connection with giving information to news organizations. The DOJ has indicated they have dozens more leak investigations active, and the Trump DOJ is on pace to prosecute more sources of journalists than any other administration before it.

According to the criminal complaint unsealed on Feb. 21, 2019, DOJ has accused Fry of searching for Cohen’s name and company in two government financial databases, downloading “suspicious activity reports,” or SARs, and sending information he found to attorney Michael Avenatti, who has represented adult entertainer Stormy Daniels in her accusations against President Trump, as well as an unidentified reporter at the New Yorker.

In May 2018, the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow published an investigation into Cohen’s suspicious overseas financial transactions that may have related to 2016 election activities, titled “Missing Files Motivated Leak of Michael Cohen’s Financial Records.” The title and quotes from the article match those cited in the complaint.

In the article, an unidentified source is quoted by Farrow justifying why it was important that the public know about Cohen’s suspicious financial transactions: “‘I have never seen something pulled off the system. . . . That system is a safeguard for the bank. It’s a stockpile of information. When something’s not there that should be, I immediately became concerned.’ The official added, ‘That’s why I came forward.’”

The DOJ claims it obtained WhatsApp messages between Fry and the unidentified reporter, assumed to be Farrow. It is unclear how the DOJ obtained these messages, or whether the DOJ has attempted to access communications records directly from Farrow or any other reporters potentially connected to this case.


Fry was charged on Feb. 4, but the criminal complaint was not unsealed until several weeks later. According to the Washington Post, Fry’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

Freedom of the Press Foundation has previously stated that leak investigations threaten the ability of journalists to speak with sources about information in the public interest.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].