In November of 2016, mere days before the presidential election, St. Paul Park college student Justin Hiemstra and fellow undergrad Andrew Harris went down to the Haverford College computer lab. There, they attempted what many had failed to do – get a peek at Donald Trump’s tax returns.
The two were familiar with the federal student aid process. They thought that maybe, just maybe, they could use an online financial aid site to open up a fake application in the name of a Trump family member. (It’s unclear just who that might have been).
Hiemstra’s lawyer, Michael van der Veen, told WCCO there was nothing malicious in either student's mind. Hiemstra happened to be a Fulbright scholar with a squeaky-clean record. He “as much wanted to see if it could be done as to do it,” and “didn’t give it much forethought.”
But as Harris’ attorney, William J. Brennan, more bluntly put it to the Washington Post: “It was like Beavis and Butt-Head saying, ‘Hey, let’s get this.’”
The scheme would end up being a little more complicated. It turned out Trump already had an ID in the system. They’d have to answer some security questions in order to reset the password and get access.
“Apparently the answers involving one of the most prominent families of the 21st century were easy enough to find on Google,” the Post reported. The two of them successfully changed the password and entered Trump’s social security number.
But they didn’t successfully provide Trump’s IRS filing status, or a home address. They failed to get access and had to abandon ship. As a precautionary measure, Hiemstra had swiped his student ID at a different building afterward “in an attempt to disguise his whereabouts,” according to prosecutors, but it wasn’t enough. The IRS and the Department of Education had been watching their every move.
On Tuesday, Hiemstra pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges in a Philadelphia federal court. Harris is also expected to plea.
Harebrained as the plot may seem to some, it’s difficult not to imagine what sort of world we’d be living in if the students had been successful. According to the Post, Harris had discussed handing the returns over to the media, which, depending on what information they contained, may have sent shockwaves through the not-yet-decided presidential campaign. If this was truly a “college prank” gone awry, it happened to come loaded with some pretty serious consequences.
“It’s no different than what the Russians were doing,” Rob D’Ovidio, an associate professor at Drexel University, told the Post.
As far as consequences for the students themselves go, we’ll have to wait until Hiemstra’s sentencing in December. He faces a possible two years in prison and a $200,000 fine.