Wickenby - five years on
A laptop seized in a raid from the Melbourne hotel room of a Swiss based promoter in 2004 set off a chain of events resulting in the largest tax evasion probe in Australia's history - Project Wickenby. The creation of this taskforce and the procedures put in place have influenced the way other countries deal with and investigate tax crime and has set a benchmark for cross agency collaboration.
"Wickenby demonstrates the excellent results that can be achieved by bringing together the resources of different government agencies to work collaboratively on an issue." John Schmidt, CEO, AUSTRAC.
1 July 2010 marked a new era for Wickenby, as the second phase of funding commenced. Five years from Wickenby's inception, the cross agency taskforce is well established and the results now speak for themselves.
The success of Wickenby was by no means guaranteed and it has taken the dedication, vision, and determination of many people in many agencies to deliver a new cross-agency capability that tackles the enormous threat to the integrity of our financial systems.
Following the Melbourne raid, the ACC started to investigate the material they found on the promoter's laptop. It soon became clear that they had discovered evidence of international tax schemes that, if allowed to continue unchecked, could pose a serious threat to Australia's revenue base, our economic integrity and therefore our way of life.
"These schemes involve the theft of millions of dollars from the Australian community and the use of sophisticated international structures designed to avoid detection. It is important to remember that every dollar lost from revenue is a dollar lost to the Australian community." John Lawler, CEO, Australian Crime Commission.
Collectively, the Wickenby agencies went to government and secured funding and adopted a new taskforce approach with clear individual and collective responsibilities and measures of success for each agency.
The road to results was not easy. Most of the media coverage in the early days of Wickenby was not particularly positive and there were also significant legal and collateral challenges from those under investigation. For instance the Australian Crime Commission was a fairly new entity and its powers had not faced many challenges until the onset of Wickenby.
The schemes Wickenby investigates are complex and require considerable time to analyse and act upon. Questions were asked through the media from the outset as to why investigations were taking so long and why there were limited results to show for the substantial investment. The Wickenby agencies stood firm knowing it was important to action work according to the law. If they rushed investigations for the sake of being seen to be getting results there was a good chance all their hard work might come undone.
"Wickenby was never about making sure we got a large dollar return on the investment - although we have, it was about protecting our revenue system and holding those to account who were not willing to pay their fair share." Michael D'Ascenzo, Commissioner, ATO.
Wickenby is about slowing and stopping the promotion of abusive complex offshore tax schemes, and deterring others from entering them.
"One of Project Wickenby's key objectives is to make Australia unattractive for international tax avoidance and evasion schemes." Tony Negus, Commissioner, AFP.
The support of the courts in handing down appropriately strong custodial sentences to people prosecuted under Wickenby demonstrates a readiness to protect the general community from such misconduct. It also suggests a willingness to encourage a growing compliance culture in our community. Haven schemes used to defraud the community and to avoid responsibilities will not be tolerated.
"The public may be increasingly confident that there is a strong prospect that even the most sophisticated schemes, often employed by offenders of considerable means, will be detected, prosecuted and punished appropriately."
Chris Craigie, Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
Wickenby kick-started many information sharing and data gathering processes that are now common both domestically and internationally. For example, cross-border co-operation between like minded jurisdictions is now commonplace, a situation brought about by Wickenby.
"The level of co-operation and the sense of urgency that Wickenby created has allowed our data matching and information gathering techniques to progress at a rapid rate." Tony D'Aloisio, Chairman, ASIC.
So, almost five years on after the inception of Wickenby how do the respective CEO's of all the Wickenby agencies feel. On this point they are in agreement "Wickenby has been a success on so many levels. We as agency heads are really proud of the work our people have achieved. But the job is not yet done and to those breaking the law by hiding money offshore take note: Wickenby is watching."