Last year, Operation Wickenby was rocked by allegations that deliberate leaks of the private tax affairs of prominent Australians were being made by investigators to the national press. Tax Chief Michael D’Ascenzo assured the public back then that no inappropriate release had occurred and everything was okay. Unfortunately for D’Ascenzo, who chairs the six agency-led committee overseeing Wickenby, the leaks are continuing unabated.
Attached to the SMH’s Saturday splash ‘How Croc Dundee’s movie millions were buried’ , was a PDF of a letter from Hogan and Cornell’s solicitor complaining about the Herald’s coverage and the unfairness of the ACC’s secrecy laws which prevent Paul Hogan and others from defending themselves against the leaked information.
Take last month’s story about Hogan attending a meeting with investigators at the Australian Crime Commission’s Sydney office. The story noted “The Herald has learned that last year, on Monday, November 6, Hogan and his lawyers attended a meeting with crime commission staff in its Elizabeth Street offices.”
Crikey has been unable to learn what the meeting was about. Of course, there has been much speculation in the media about Hogan and his former sidekick, John Cornell, being linked to international profit-shifting. Hogan and Cornell deny any wrongdoing.
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I can only assume that the meeting in question was a highly secretive “examination” conducted by ACC investigators. According to the ACC, examinations are confidential proceedings and are held in secret. They are not open to the public or the media and only persons authorised by an examiner may be present.
I asked the ATO whether they were investigating this latest leak. They responded: “Agencies involved in Project Wickenby routinely analyse press articles to assure themselves there has been no inappropriate release of information. There is no evidence to suggest any inappropriate release has occurred.”
D’Ascenzo was grilled last year by the Senate Estimates Committee on the leaks. He had this to say:
You have to remember that there have been over 20 legal challenges to the ACC’s access to information, and therefore there is a lot of information on the public record through those legal proceedings. In other situations, the media has gone to some of the overseas countries or jurisdictions involved, such as Switzerland, and interviewed people in Switzerland about these activities. That is another avenue. The third avenue could be the promoters themselves in terms of some of their clients. The fourth one could be the taxpayers themselves. They are possibilities. All that I am saying is that we take allegations of leaks very, very seriously. We have investigated them.
Crikey investigations have revealed that on the night before the meeting with the ACC, Hogan and his team took elaborate steps to keep his meeting with the ACC confidential.
Under a secret ACC examination the only people with knowledge of the meeting would have been ACC investigators, Hogan and his legal advisers. None of the scenarios mentioned by D’Ascenzo to the Senate committee fit. Hogan has always strenuously denied any involvement in tax cheating, so what purpose would it serve if he leaked details of the meeting? And why go to extreme measures to conceal his attendance at the alleged meeting, only to then leak it?
Then there’s this new information (including the dubiously entitled ‘Dutch Sandwich’ allegedly employed by Hogan and others) from Saturday’s SMH which suggests the entire system is leaking like a sieve. This time, Garnaut details “explosive legal documents” that “shed new light on how Paul Hogan and John ‘Strop’ Cornell allegedly came to have more than $US100 million ($120 million) in film royalties managed on their behalf in offshore tax havens”.
Where is The SMH getting this stuff from? And, if it is, what’s in it for the ACC to leak this kind of sensitive information?
The only motive I can come up with is that Operation Wickenby is struggling to cough up any meaningful results. Pressure is now being applied by the Government to see some fruit from their $300 million investment in Wickenby. A way to keep the interest of the Government and public is for strategic leaks of high-profile taxpayers’ information to titillate their interest.