POLITICS
13/06/2018 04:47 SAST | Updated 13/06/2018 06:02 SAST

New Sars Boss Says So-Called 'Rogue Unit' Members Are Not Coming Back... For Now

Mark Kingon, acting commissioner of the revenue service, is however in talks with former members of the dismantled Large Business Centre.

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Former members of the South African Revenue Services' (Sars) disbanded specialist enforcement units are not being targeted or specifically enticed to return to the receiver, says acting commissioner Mark Kingon.

But he has already had "two big engagements" with former managers and officials of the Sars Large Business Centre, which was dismantled under the leadership of suspended commissioner Tom Moyane.

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Mark Kingon, acting commissioner for the South African Revenue Service (SARS), left, and Nhlanhla Nene, South Africa's finance minister, attend a news conference in Pretoria, South Africa, on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. South Africa's tax agency collected 1.216 trillion rand ($101.3 billion) in the year through March, slightly below target. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kingon told HuffPost in an interview at Sars' headquarters in Brooklyn, Pretoria, that he is currently reviewing the institution's organisational structure and is preparing to resurrect the defunct units as well as the LBC. These units, including the High-Risk Intervention Unit (the so-called "rogue unit") and the LBC, were disbanded under the leadership of Moyane. The LBC dealt with big corporate taxpayers.

"We will soon be making announcements, but we're not yet ready to do so," he said.

Moyane was appointed by former president Jacob Zuma in September 2014 and suspended pending the outcome of a hearing into his fitness for office by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

I am moving towards reinstituting teams to deal with illicit flows, illegal tobacco transactions, the illicit economy and various aspects like that. You need technical capability in order to tackle what is an extremely complex field.

Kingon acknowledged that there has been an exodus of Sars employees over the last three years, saying the staff complement at one stage stood at 14,000 people and that figure is now down to around 12,000. He added that Sars needs "better intelligence" and the infusion of expertise to combat illicit money flows and the shadow world of illegal tobacco trade, but did not want to commit to bringing back the host of forensic experts who left Sars under Moyane's leadership.

"The issue around bringing back people is too early for me to say 'yea' or 'nay'. Obviously people can reapply. When we head-hunt, which we do, yes, we may pull back people who have been employed in the past. I don't know. That would [however] be in terms of normal processes. I'm not saying: 'Let's target them.' I'm not doing that at this point in time," Kingon explained.

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CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA � FEBRUARY 21: Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba and SARS commissioner Tom Moyane during a media briefing ahead of the 2018 budget speech on February 21, 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa. Delivering his first annual budget speech since his appointment as Finance minister, Gigaba shed light on South Africa�s economic road map. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Esa Alexander)

After Moyane was given the Sars reins by Zuma he proceeded to close down a number of specialist units, including the HRIU, National Projects (which investigated underworld figures like Mark Lifman and the illegal cigarette trade), Central Projects (which investigated, among others, Julius Malema), the Tactical Intervention Unit as well as the Evidence Management and Technical Support Unit. This happened in the wake of the so-called "rogue unit" narrative which was published by the Sunday Times in 2014 and 2015. The closure of these units led to an exodus of expertise and institutional knowledge from Sars.

"I am moving towards reinstituting teams to deal with illicit flows, illegal tobacco transactions, the illicit economy and various aspects like that. You need technical capability in order to tackle what is an extremely complex field. Some say the illicit tobacco trade is costing us R5-billion and the illicit alcohol trade R26-billion.

I'm focused on the rebuilding of those units and my enforcement team too. Already meetings are taking place, there's a two-day workshop (this week)...

"We need to deal with every aspect of that as well as smuggling over the border, but we cannot deal with every transaction. We need better intelligence," he said.

He reiterated that his main focus currently is to lift staff morale, to get the focus back on the collection of tax as well as cultivating and developing the skills needed to tackle the illicit economy. He told HuffPost that Sars is still staffed by many committed and passionate officials and that they deserve the confidence of the institution's leadership.

"I'm focused on the rebuilding of those units and my enforcement team too. Already meetings are taking place, there's a two-day workshop [this week] and we hope from that will flow a methodology on how we are to re-establish those units in a very structured way," Kingon said.

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KPMG auditing firm offices on at Empire Road on September 19, 2017 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The SA Revenue Service is pushing to have the firm blacklisted from all government business after KPMG's withdrawal of the "rogue unit" report it authored for the tax authority. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Alon Skuy)

He added he does not "want to go back to the 'rogue unit narrative" but that new specialist units will be legal and operate within the law. "Any unit that operates under my watch will operate with good governance and in a transparent way. It must be professional... there's no place for unprofessional behaviour. It must operate under the tax law and while I'm sitting here we won't tolerate anyone operating outside of it."

The "rogue unit" narrative dictated that a number of specialist units were operating illegally and involved themselves in spying on politicians, including then-leader of the ANC, Jacob Zuma. Members of those units have consistently denied that they acted contrary to law and Sars procedure and have been supported in their contentions by former Sars commissioner and minister of finance Pravin Gordhan. Gordhan is currently a high-ranking member of Ramaphosa's Cabinet.

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Ivan Pillay, Andries Janse van Rensburg and Johann van Loggerenberg during their appearance at the Pretoria Magistrate�s Court on April 09, 2018 in Pretoria, South Africa. Former SARS officials Ivan Pillay, Johann van Loggerenberg, and Andries Janse van Rensburg are charged with the illegal interception of communications and corruption relating to the installation of cameras installed at the offices National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) which became known as Project Sunday Evenings. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Deaan Vivier)

Three former Sars executives and officials, Ivan Pillay (former deputy commissioner), Johann van Loggerenberg (HRIU) and Andries Janse van Rensburg (HRIU operative), will be appearing in court later this month on charges of spying on the National Prosecuting Authority. The charges were initiated by Moyane and Kingon indicated the law must now take its course.

Kingon said he is "seeking to put right" the hurt caused by the KPMG report and the "rogue unit" narrative and that he is engaging individuals involved in it. He was noncommittal on Sars' position on the report — a portion of which was withdrawn by the auditing firm — but said the institution is "on a journey".