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ATO bullying whistleblower alleges ‘tick and flick’ complaint culture

features-ato-complaints-200The whistleblower at the centre of court action against the Australian Taxation Office over allegations she was bullied for lodging a complaint about ATO maladministration is now personally suing the Commissioner of Taxation Michael D’Ascenzo and three other senior ranking officials in the Federal Court that threatens to expose a possible bullying culture within the upper echelons of the organisation.

This action is precedential in Australia as a whistleblower has not previously held individual public officials personally accountable under the Public Service Act 1999.

Serene Teffaha, a senior ATO lawyer engaged as a tax technical specialist, last week lodged a statement of claim in the Federal Court alleging the Commissioner of Taxation, acting on behalf of the ATO, may be vicariously liable for the wilful misconduct and culpable negligence of his public officials that include fellow respondents to the claim, first assistant Commissioner David Diment, assistant Commissioner Margot Rushton and Susanna Lombardi, national director of the small and medium enterprises division.

In 2011, Teffaha and four other senior colleagues lodged the whistleblower complaint with David Diment alleging various maladministration issues associated with the ATO’s high-profile pursuit of high-wealth individual Australians worth between $100 million and $250 million a year. The complainants believed taxpayers were being disadvantaged by not having their objections to assessments dealt with in a fair and professional way.

Some of the explosive new allegations raised in the statement of claim include:

  • The ATO issued staff a formal target of ensuring taxpayer objections to audit decisions were upheld in less than 20% of cases, irrespective of merit (that is, the target was to disallow 80% of taxpayers’ objections)
  • Original decision makers of audits exerted influence over the ATO officers with responsibility for determining objections, with the intention of procuring disallowance of these objections
  • Teffaha and others were instructed by Susanna Lombardi that the ATO’s audit decisions should receive a “tick and flick” and affirm those decisions without appropriate consideration of the merits of each individual taxpayer’s objection.

These are serious allegations that strike at the heart of our democratic tax system. Taxpayers have a right under the law to object against their assessment if they believe it is wrong. What Teffaha is alleging is the ATO introduced targets for their staff to disallow objections and to “tick and flick” original decisions made by audit officers.

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