Australian Taxation Office (ATO) whistleblower Richard Boyle says the tax ombudsman failed to do a proper review of the tax office regarding allegations of improper use of debt-collection powers.
- Former ATO public servant Richard Boyle faces the prospect of life in prison for blowing the whistle on the ATO
- Mr Boyle’s submission to a federal inquiry claims the tax watchdog, the Inspector-General of Taxation, failed to offer “independent, open and transparent analysis” of his case
- Other submissions to the inquiry say the tax ombudsman needs better resourcing to help small businesses and, some suggest, oversight of the watchdog itself
In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry looking at whether the tax ombudsman, the Inspector General of Taxation (IGT), properly fulfils its role, Mr Boyle claims the ombudsman’s review of the ATO’s debt-collection practices was botched.
A number of other submissions lodged last month have called on the Federal Government to give the tax watchdog more powers to protect whistleblowers and keep proper watch over the ATO.
The allegations from Mr Boyle regarding the ATO cash grab and improper use of its powers against taxpayers were first aired in a joint Fairfax/ABC Four Corners report.
The ATO former debt-collection officer, who now faces the prospect of life in prison for blowing the whistle on the ATO and is yet to go to trial, revealed in that investigation a directive issued to ATO Adelaide office staff in June 2017.
This directive asked staff to issue a “standard garnishee notice” on all taxpayers and bank accounts, which required the bank to keep sending money to the ATO on an ongoing basis, whenever money was deposited in the account.
Following the media investigation, the tax ombudsman concluded in a review of the ATO’s use of garnishee notices that there was no cash grab, but did find the ATO did not always use its garnishee powers “proportionately and appropriately”.
Each ATO staff member may have issued 10 garnishee notices a day
In his latest submission, which has been heavily redacted by the Senate Economics Legislation Committee holding the inquiry, Mr Boyle states the tax ombudsman’s review of the ATO failed to offer “independent, open and transparent analysis of facts provided to them”.
Mr Boyle had initially made a public interest disclosure internally within the ATO.
It was only after the ATO dismissed his disclosure that Mr Boyle then, in November 2017, submitted it to the Inspector-General of Taxation, and then to the media investigation in April 2018.
Mr Boyle revealed to the investigation that a team leader email sent in May 2017 to staff towards the end of a shift read: “The last hour of power is upon us … that means you still have time to issue another five garnishees … right?”
The Inspector-General of Taxation handed down its review of the ATO garnishee notice practices in March, where it found that issuing two such notices per hour were not achievable, and rates, on average, were much lower.
The review noted the “hour of power” email was sent to 12 frontline staff in the local Adelaide office by a single team leader who was supervising them one Saturday as they worked overtime.
It said the team leader who authored the email told the Inspector-General of Taxation the email, “was not intended in a literal sense, but rather in an ironic sense”.
Mr Boyle said in his submission: “This conclusion of the IGT is patently incorrect and inconsistent with the observations or capacity of this author, and their former colleagues, to issue enduring garnishees at speed.”
“During the period in question, from June to August 2017, it was not uncommon for the author to observe debt staff in Adelaide who outright obeyed the directive collect a significant pile of garnishees they had issued on a particular business day,” Mr Boyle said.
“For any staff member who obeyed the directive, the number of these garnishee notices could easily approach 10 in a standard business working day.”
Richard Boyle and Louise Beaston at their recent wedding at the State Library of South Australia. (Supplied: Richard Boyle)
Cash-grab claims are ‘incidental’
The pressure to collect revenue was so great, that junior staff were asked to seize money from taxpayers’ bank accounts before even calling taxpayers to warn it would happen.
Mr Boyle said the directive was to issue standard garnishees on all cases that were delivered to debt staff for a period of about three months.
“This directive was abhorrent for reasons of the grave risk it posed to shut down and incapacitate small businesses’ trading bank accounts for a period of three months,” Mr Boyle said.
It also breached many elements of the APS Values and the APS Code of Conduct contained in the Public Service Act 1999, he said.
“Whether the directive can be defined as a ‘cash grab’; whether there were KPIs indicating performance was measured on revenue collection; whether staff who were given the directive adhered to the ATO’s garnishee notice policies and procedures; are incidental to the directive itself — the directive was incontrovertible, and categorical,” he said.
Mr Boyle also noted that while the IGT had found new or less experienced staff may not have “fully appreciated” the consequences of what they were being directed to do, it was still the case that “these brand-new staff were categorically instructed to do so by the senior executives in the debt business line of the ATO, much to the astonishment and disbelief of many debt staff”.
Mr Boyle said examples in his submission demonstrated “serious inadequacy” of the Inspector-General of Taxation to conduct reviews into the ATO, “or worse, may indicate a deliberate obfuscation, complication or muddying of the facts which this author finds difficult to explain”.
“For the Inspector-General of Taxation, as the institution tasked as being the main check and balance to any potential untoward or inappropriate behaviour of the Australian Taxation Office, to form this view despite being provided with an extensive and exhaustive list of facts and information, is exceedingly disconcerting,” he said.
Tax ombudsman needs more resourcing, independence
Other taxpayers who spoke to the media investigation have also made submissions to the inquiry.
Helen Petaia, who lost nearly everything in her battle with the ATO, said in her submission she found the Inspector-General of Taxation’s assistance helpful.
“The most striking observation for me is that when the IGT is able to chronologically map out facts to the ATO and engage in robust discussions, the ATO appears willing to listen and take appropriate action,” she said.
But she said the IGT was a very small team and to replicate the work they did on her matters for a higher volume of taxpayers would take “considerable resourcing”.
Helen Petaia, who lost nearly everything in her battle with the ATO, says the tax ombudsman needs more resourcing to help small businesses.
She said, if it better resourced, the agency could, “save thousands if not hundreds of thousands in legal and professional expenses for small business and, I believe, circumvent many unnecessary legal actions”.
Former senior ATO insider Ron Shamir had also told the media investigation ATO staff, working at the Box Hill branch in Melbourne, had in the past had revenue targets that had to be met.
Mr Shamir was sacked by the ATO in mid-2015 for non-performance. He took his case to the Fair Work Commission, winning initially but losing on appeal.
The ATO offered to settle his case but he refused to agree to any condition preventing him from speaking publicly.
Mr Shamir notes in his submission to the inquiry that the Inspector-General of Taxation also aims to keep information away from the public, because by law it must protect peoples’ privacy and taxpayer confidentiality.
He said if there was an “agreement that information that is potentially damaging or embarrassing will be kept away from public scrutiny by the IGT” then this sets “a dangerous precedent” in the relationship between an oversight agency and the oversighted.
“Agreeing to keep information of public interest secret is arguably a form of capture of an oversight agency,” Mr Shamir said.
“Safeguards, such as effective, independent oversight of the IGT, are required to ensure that the IGT is not at risk of capture or compromise of public expectations of independence.”
The ATO told ABC News the agency would make itself available to the federal inquiry if requested to attend a hearing, but was unable to comment on the other submissions.
It is due to appear before a hearing on October 18.
Inspector General of Taxation Karen Payne will also appear at that hearing, as will Mr Boyle, Ms Petaia and Mr Shamir.