This is actually a topic I know something about from years of running a news organization and working with media lawyers to do it. As a general matter, if documents fall from the sky into your lap, you are pretty much free to do anything with them you want - even if bad acts were involved as they made their way to you. It's a very different matter, or can be, if you were in communication with or working with the person who committed the bad acts prior to their commission....Marshall continues, citing a Washington Post story about the legal risks:
There's an additional advantage to the Times scenario. Even if you have no legal responsibility for bad acts, you can still get in trouble. A court may want to get at the person who committed the bad acts. And a court can compel a journalist to identify that person.
... the Times scenario is an ideal one from the media organization's perspective. Getting an anonymous email is a textbook example of what is meant by the 'falling out of the sky' scenario. Not only does the Times have no legal culpability, it has nothing to divulge. It doesn't know who the source is or what they did to get the documents. It's as free and clear as you can get.
The Post notes federal laws which bar publication of tax returns. But I'm pretty sure (though not certain) that those laws apply only to federal tax returns. These are clearly not federal tax returns the Times acquired. They're tax documents for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut which reference a critical federal tax declaration. Not the same.Assuming that Times reporter Susanne Craig is telling the truth when she says that the documents arrived in her mailbox unexpectedly, with no indication of a source, this leaker apparently realized that the Times would be in less legal trouble from an anonymous leak than from a leak in which Craig knew the leaker's identity. To me that suggests a leaker who knows the law, or is being advised by someone who knows the law. The leaker knew enough not to contact Craig and say, "Hi, I'm blah-blah-blah, and I have some documents you might be interested in."
And if these were the only documents Craig received, that suggests that the leaker knew the difference in the law regarding state and federal documents. (Craig has been coy when asked whether there are more documents.)
The other possibility is that there actually was some contact between Craig and the leaker, and Craig is giving us a cover story about how she got the documents. But if she's telling the truth, her leaker knew anonymity povided a legal shield. That suggests someone familiar with tax law and/or media law. At least that's how it looks to me.