Helen Petaia is taking the ATO to the Supreme Court. Picture: Four Corners.
Helen Petaia is taking the ATO to the Supreme Court. Picture: Four Corners.

ATO whistleblowers’ shock claims

WHISTLEBLOWERS and small business owners have lifted the lid on what they claim is a culture of bullying and intimidation at the Australian Taxation Office.  

A joint investigation by the ABC's Four Corners and Fairfax aired claims from former staffers the organisation ramped up debt collection as part of a revenue grab before the end of the financial year.  

Former staffer Richard Boyle, who had a history of clashes with the agency and turned down a payout to speak to media, said he believes an alleged internal directive in June 2017 was designed to "collect revenue before the end of the financial year." 

"We were instructed quite clearly and categorically to start issuing standard garnishees on every case," he said, referring to the notice sent to third parties instructing them to hand over cash to the ATO.  

Mr Boyle said he raised concern about the impact it could have on the community and described the internal pressure on staff to issue notices.  

"I said it could possibly even push people toward suicide that needed our compassion, as opposed to the people that we should rightly be targeting with standard garnishees," he said.  

Mr Boyle has since been suspended without pay and had his home raided last week by police and tax officials amid allegations he broke privacy and secrecy laws.

Another former senior ATO staffer, Ron Shamir, who was sacked for non-performance in mid 2015 and took the ATO to the Fair Work Commission, said internal pressure led staff to look for targets that would be unlikely to resist.  

"You would be looking at taxpayers who are less able to resist the might of the Tax Office. Taxpayers that are more vulnerable, and that often meant individuals and small businesses rather than larger businesses who had less legal resources," he told the show.  

ATO deputy commissioner for small business, Deborah Jenkins declined to comment on specific allegations but denied the organisation was driven by revenue collection and said garnishee orders are used "very sparingly".  

"It's a really important part of what we do, we can't let aside the fact that we are a revenue authority, but for me it's actually really important if we want people to willingly participate in our system," she said.  

"That's why our focus is on education, prevention, and support, and I've got a huge part of my team is actually dedicated to doing that work."   

However others also told Four Corners they believe the ATO targets those less likely to fight back.  

Self Employed Australia advocate, Ken Phillips, said he thought the ATO put those without deep pockets in its sights. 

"They set targets, they chase low-hanging fruit, people who are being honest and upright, and they whack them with a huge bill and then chase them," he said.  

Small business owner Helen Petaia is taking the ATO to the Supreme Court after she was sent letters claiming she owned hundreds of thousands of dollars.  

The ATO eventually admitted they made a mistake and offered compensation, however she said the legal battle left her "financially ravaged" with a huge toll on her personal life and business.  

"They treat me as if I am just this mum in the suburbs. What would I know, how much money is it going to take to shut her up," she said.  

The investigation led Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm to call for greater oversight against government agencies taking advantage of the lack of resources of a claimant.  

"Those with deep pockets can send in the big legal guns but there are myriad examples of small businesses and individuals who have either been sent to the wall fighting their case or simply paid up because they know to take on the ATO would financially ruin them," he said.  

"Murderers have more rights than tax payers" says tax barrister Graeme Halperin, on the "malicious' dealings of the Australian Taxation Office.  

The ATO has been contacted for comment.  

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