Commissioner of Taxation Michael D’Ascenzo is under pressure. Yesterday the AFR detailed how officers from the federal government’s $305 million dollar taskforce Operation Wickenby had unlawfully shared sensitive tax information amongst each other.

The AFR’s six month investigation included a number of applications under the Freedom of Information Act. They discovered that five senior ATO officers had raised concerns about breaches of the tax office’s sacred secrecy provisions.

One of the complainants was Jennifer Game who was Operation Wickenby Director of Secrecy. She alleged ATO officers illegally shared sensitive and highly secret information to help secure the high profile scalps of Glenn Wheatley and Paul Hogan.

It seems Game was eventually treated as persona-non-grata by ATO senior management who obviously saw her allegations as a threat to the integrity of the much-vaunted Wickenby investigation.

I used to work with Jennifer Game at the now defunct Chatswood NSW branch of the ATO. I found her to be a highly competent manager with great integrity and she managed without fear or favour. She is highly educated and her work was much valued in the tax office hence her elevation to the position of Director of Wickenby Secrecy.

The ATO have commissioned a review of their operations by lawyer Dale Boucher, brother of former Commissioner Trevor Boucher. D’Ascenzo said yesterday that he will provide a report to the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit soon.

Yesterday D’Ascenzo issued a message to all ATO staff  rejecting the allegations in the AFR.

It seems Boucher has not discovered endemic or systemic issues with the unlawful exchange of information. Whether the problem is “systemic” or “endemic” across the whole tax office is irrelevant, the fact is that it is a problem in Operation Wickenby. D’Ascenzo wants to hang his hat on the fact that the problem is not across the whole ATO and therefore there is no problem. This is spin in its best form.

Since it started Wickenby has been beset by leaks to the press of the personal tax affairs of prominent Australians. I have written extensively about this in Crikey over the past few years.

D’Ascenzo has gone to great lengths to reject any allegations of leaks from Wickenby. He has told Parliamentary Committees that:

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.

He has also blamed leaks on promoters, documents on the public record and even the taxpayers themselves. He has issued press releases and sent letters to the editor pleading with the community to believe that it wasn’t them.

Last December Paul Hogan’s lawyers unsuccessfully tried to have auditors involved in his case replaced due to the fact they had viewed legal professional privileged documents. The court ruled against him. Crikey understands that, in light of yesterday’s revelations, Hogan’s lawyers are reviewing the matter and may appeal the decision.

What we need to know is what D’Ascenzo is going to do with the officers who breached the secrecy provisions? Has he sacked them? Have they been suspended pending further investigation? Or are they still plying their trade in the Wickenby bunker?

Peter Fray

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