September 16, 2014 – 11:30PM
Reporter for The Canberra Times
Abuse of Power: The ATO is facing trouble on numerous fronts, including claims that it abused its powers while investigating one of its own. Photo: AFR
The Australian Taxation Office’s internal crime-fighting unit could face investigation by Australian Federal Police anti-corruption over allegations it abused its powers while pursuing threats against one of their own.
The Taxation Office has also been forced to apologise to a woman caught up in the same case whose personal internet use was trawled by ATO investigators trying to snare the person behind the hate mail.
The ATO’s feared Fraud Prevention and Internal Investigations (FP&II) unit is also facing trouble on another front, with legal action looming from two former tax officials it wrongly accused of being involved in a grisly Melbourne underworld killing.
Federal Police in Adelaide have referred a complaint from ex-taxation staffer Gary Setter to their anti-corruption counterparts in Canberra for evaluation.
Mr Setter alleges the FP&II acted unlawfully throughout an investigation into their former colleague whom they suspected was behind a hate mail campaign against a senior figure in the unit.
The pursuit culminated in a raid in October 2011, when Canberra-based public servants armed with a search warrant burst in the HMAS Cerberus naval base on the Mornington Peninsula, where Mr Setter was working, and spent several hours scouring his accommodation for evidence.
The unit also pursued a family member of Mr Setter’s and used its powers to gain access to weblogs linked to the woman’s email address.
But the Australian Information Commissioner found the move was a breach of the woman’s privacy and Assistant Commissioner Jonathan Todd has offered an “unreserved apology” for the conduct of FP&II.
“The criminal investigation was not undertaken in relation to you or your conduct,” Mr Todd wrote.
“We also regret any anxiety or distress that the ATO’s actions may have caused you.”
Mr Setter left the ATO under a cloud in 2010 and later pleaded guilty in a South Australian court to unlawfully accessing the tax records of family members.
But he has always maintained he is innocent of pursuing a hate mail campaign against senior figures in the FP&II and has alleged to Federal Police that at least two members of the unit committed abuses of public office in their pursuit of him, including making false statements to obtain the Cerberus search warrant.
After an “initial evaluation” the AFP’s Adelaide Operations Committee has sent the complaint to Canberra for evaluation by the force’s Fraud and Anti-Corruption team, who have yet to make a decision on whether to pursue the Taxation Office.
An Ombudsman’s investigation into the case has recommended an independent review into FP&II, but it is unclear what progress has been made.
An ATO spokesman said on Tuesday that the the Information Commissioner would be taking no further action.
“In this instance, the OAIC ceased its investigation into the complaint on the grounds that ‘the ATO has adequately dealt with the matter’,” the spokesman said.
Taxation’s media unit did not respond to questions about the broader allegations about the Setter case but Deputy Commissioner of Taxation Jeff Leeper has previously defended the conduct of his fraud busters, saying they had good reason to pursue Mr Setter and denying they launched their investigation on ” hunch”.
Meantime, two other former taxation investigators, who spent nine years suspected of accessing tax files on Melbourne “vampire gigolo”, Shane Chartres-Abbott, before he was murdered in 2003, say they are moving closer to legal action against the ATO.
Peter Spence and Bob Hynninen blame the FP&II for the botched investigation that led to their departure from their jobs and saw them implicated as suspects in the underworld-related killing.
Mr Hynninen told The Canberra Times this week that he and Mr Spence were awaiting the release of further documentation on their case before they launched their court action against the ATO.
Source : The Sydney Morning Herald