The Australian Taxation Office has rejected claims they leaked information about Operation Wickenby suspects. In a press release issued yesterday they said: “There is no evidence to suggest any inappropriate release has occurred.“

The ATO were prompted to act after the government stepped in on the weekend after a week of sensational revelations about the tax affairs of prominent Australians, including Paul Hogan, John Cornell and Kostya Tszyu, being caught up in the multi agency tax fraud investigation which were leaked to the media.

Competition between journalists at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, where they proudly tallied their list of suspects for readers, was akin to a gun slinger in the old west adding a notch to his gun. Assistant Treasurer Peter Dutton told Crikey earlier this week: “I was concerned to see allegations regarding people’s personal tax affairs in the press this week.”

You would expect, after the minister’s intervention, the ATO would have mounted a serious investigation into what appears to be criminal defiance of the secrecy provisions of the tax act. According to the media release what we got instead was, “Agencies involved in Project Wickenby routinely analyse press articles to assure themselves there has been no inappropriate release of information.”

Sorry Minister but routinely analysing press articles is just not good enough! We have had two of the leak victims make specific allegations that their private tax details have been leaked to the media. John Cornell has accused the ATO of a campaign of media leaks 

He said “Despite the fact that Australian citizens are protected by the Tax Office Secrecy Act, I am being subjected to trial by media leak.” Celebrity lawyer Michael Brereton has also alleged that the Australian Crime Commission has leaked information to the press.

Yesterday The SMH said they had received an anonymous letter enclosed with a copy of a confidential ACC letter to Switzerland which should only have been accessible to select officials in Australia and Switzerland, and principals or representatives of Strachans. The author also says he or she leaked information to Jennifer Sexton of The Australian. Any documentation held by journalists should be seized by the authorities immediately and be subjected to forensic testing to determine its source.

To top everything off we had details emerge yesterday that the ATO has taken action against 27 staff members for breaches of privacy.

ATO first assistant commissioner Anne Ellison, said 12 of the staff caught spying last year resigned on the spot. Four were sacked, two were fined and six had their salaries reduced or were demoted. I would question why the miscreants were allowed to resign and not put before the courts?

The secrecy provisions underpin voluntary compliance, which is one of the pillars that our tax system is built on. Taxpayers are entitled to privacy and respect but at the moment the integrity of the government’s Operation Wickenby is under question.

Surely all this is ringing alarm bells with Dutton?

Peter Fray

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