ATO in Five Eyes blitz on tax crime
AUSTRALIAN BUSINESS REVIEW December 26, 2018 Nick Tabakoff
ATO deputy commissioner Will Day Picture- AAP
ATO deputy commissioner Will Day says the new international body would pursue cyber-related identity theft, tax evasion using cryptocurrencies, corporate ‘phoenixing’ and international tax evasion using tax havens. Picture: AAP
The Australian Taxation Office will launch an unprecedented international blitz on tax criminals that is being compared to the intelligence community’s “Five Eyes” alliance.
The five-nation tax intelligence-sharing operation is being described by experts as “Project Wickenby on steroids”, a reference to the ATO’s much-debated, nine-year war on tax evasion that ended in 2015, and which claims to have resulted in nearly 50 criminal convictions.
In an exclusive interview with The Australian, ATO deputy commissioner Will Day revealed that a $182 million grant in the federal government’s mid-year economic and fiscal outlook this month would be used from early next year to “supercharge” Australia’s involvement in the new body, known as the Joint Chiefs of Global Tax Enforcement (or J5 for short).
Mr Day said the new international body would pursue cyber-related identity theft, tax evasion using cryptocurrencies, corporate “phoenixing” and international tax evasion using tax havens.
He said J5 applied similar principles to that of Five Eyes, one of the most far-reaching espionage pacts ever signed.
“The fact we are relying on longstanding relationships with these other countries with a history of an alliance with us, and the fact that they also face similar threats, means it is analogous to the Five Eyes,” Mr Day said.
“It is pretty similar from a tax point of view.”
The intelligence-sharing organisation, quietly established five months ago, includes the heads of tax crime and senior officials from Australia, the US, Britain, The Netherlands and Canada.
Its composition closely resembles Five Eyes, the only difference being that The Netherlands is a member instead of New Zealand.
So far, the joint efforts have involved identifying targets.
“A number of operations have been identified, and a number are to be commenced,” Mr Day said. “We’ll be starting to initiate them in the first half of next year.”
Mr Day said a key realisation from the body’s work had been the need to target “enablers” of tax evasion, who he declined to identify. He described them as “shadowy characters who sit behind websites that encourage people to hide income and assets offshore to avoid tax”.
“The focus is to track down the internationally located enablers of that tax crime, even when they’re sitting offshore,” he said.
“Bringing together the five countries is a large part of that, and we’ve made significant progress in identifying operational targets, utilising the improved partnerships.”
Mr Day said at a meeting in Utrecht in The Netherlands in November, each of the J5 members had identified one huge international criminal target acting as an enabler.
“We actually all agreed on an enabler of international tax crime who was rated the highest level of threat for all of the J5 countries,” he said.
This revelation has echoes of Wickenby, in which the primary focus was Swiss accountant Phillip Egglishaw, whose firm Strachans, based in the tax haven of Jersey, was linked to hundreds of Australians.
He remains on an Interpol most-wanted list.
The ATO alleged he set up a $300 million network of tax-avoidance schemes and said it had recouped nearly $1 billion in cash collections through the Wickenby investigation.
Pressed for more details on who the ATO was targeting, Mr Day would not reveal whether the enabler was an individual, a firm or a company.
He said the details were “very operationally sensitive”.
An industry source who did not wish to be named said the new program was likely to be targeted against tax advisers who promoted offshore tax-evasion schemes.
The source said that the J5 appeared to be less about recouping money and more about creating an effective deterrent against future tax crime.
“If they put a tax adviser in jail, it will send an earthquake through the shadowy world of people who create and promote these schemes,” the source said.
Mr Day said the “Five Eyes of tax” was not setting specific financial targets, but its success would be measured by the number of criminals it caught. “We do a lot of it to ensure the ongoing confidence in the Australian tax system,” he said. “We’ve taken a lot of corrective action already, and we want to maintain that confidence going forward.”
PwC’s Australian head of tax, Pete Calleja, said the new international pact between the five countries looked set to become a much larger version of Wickenby, the ATO-led cross-agency taskforce that became one of the country’s biggest tax investigations. “This seems to me like a supercharged, new-age version of Wickenby,” he said.
Mr Day conceded that “in a way, the mischief hasn’t changed” since Wickenby. “It’s about the use of secrecy or low-tax jurisdictions to channel funds that have been illegally held through other entities, such as trusts,” he said.
Another major emerging problem area, Mr Day said, was “cyber-enabled identity crime”.
“It’s about using identity theft as a way of evading tax, or of committing refund fraud,” he said.
“Phoenixing”, or the practice of using a new company to rebirth failed businesses of a previous company, was also being targeted by the J5. “It is domestically facilitated, but we would certainly see the laundering of the proceeds of illegal phoenix activity offshore, in tax havens,” he said.
Mr Day also said the body was particularly interested in “cryptocurrencies on the dark net”.
Mr Calleja believes the new international tax pact will be primarily targeted at the international black economy.
“If we know the Australian share of the black economy is $50 billion, the ‘Five Eyes’ black economy has to be hundreds of billions of dollars,” he said.
The Netherlands is seen as crucial to the co-operation agreement, after research last year found the country was a channel for nearly one-quarter of corporate investments around the world that finally ended up in a tax haven.