Australian Tax Office Commissioner Chris Jordan has accused the media of lying and engaging in "deliberately sensationalist" reporting over allegations the agency was ripping money out of individual and small business accounts under a directive to use more heavy-handed debt collection tactics.
In a personal attack on ATO whistleblowers Richard Boyle and Ron Shamir, Mr Jordan said their actions along with the media's coverage of the agency "may undermine the community's trust and confidence in the tax system" while accusing them of being disgruntled employees who were likely to be terminated over their performance.
Mr Boyle's revelations on enduring garnishees being used to recoup tax from small businesses - pushing many to the brink of collapse - led to a bipartisan parliamentary inquiry making 37 recommendations in a report that described the ATO's performance as "annus horribilis".
Mr Boyle's internal public interest disclosure was rejected by the Australian Tax Office's senior investigator Andrew Wunsch in October 2017, six months before The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Four Corners revealed the growth of the practice at the ATO's Adelaide branch.
The Inspector-General of Taxation on Friday confirmed it had concerns with the garnishees and asked for it to be given greater powers to protect whistleblowers in a move likely to increase tensions between the two government agencies.
Mr Jordan told a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday Mr Boyle's revelations had nothing to do with the practices uncovered at the Adelaide branch and he was facing time in jail for recording his colleagues and for providing taxpayer files to third parties. Mr Shamir told a Parliamentary inquiry on Friday that he will "never work again" after he became a whistleblower on misconduct in the ATO relating to business activity statement refunds.
Summons sheets signed by Mr Jordan show the ATO has alleged 66 charges against Mr Boyle - with many carrying sentences of two to three years in jail - but only a fraction relate to disclosure of private information by a Commonwealth officer.
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Mr Jordan accused the media of "deliberately sensationalist" commentary on these charges, with "reports that the defendant is likely to face 161 years in jail".
"This is a blatant and knowing mischaracterisation of our current sentencing system," he said. "The convention holds that sentences for similar related offences are usually imposed concurrently rather than consecutively, having regard to the overall circumstances."
The tax commissioner said the "Right to Know" campaign, which all major media outlets began this week to highlight challenges to press freedom had "reignited misleading public commentary" about the tax office's attitude towards whistleblowers.
"Contrary to what is being written by some commentators, the ATO takes whistle-blowing very seriously and we actively encourage disclosures where people feel they are warranted," he said.
The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Four Corners requested an interview with Mr Jordan several times before reporting the allegations last year. The requests were declined. Mr Jordan was forced to correct the public record at a Senate estimates hearing last year when he claimed he had never been offered a formal interview.
On Wednesday, Mr Jordan said he wanted to "inject some balance into this conversation" which had "simply got out of control".
He said the public campaign across all major media outlets that included the claim, "The Tax Office can take money directly out of people's accounts. But you're not allowed to know" was misleading.
"Wow. Imagine if that was true!" he said.
Mr Jordan said the ATO used garnishees and other firmer actions only after attempts to engage the taxpayer have failed.
"On average, there have been 19 interactions or attempts to engage a taxpayer before we exercise garnishee powers," he said.
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- SMH/The Age