Prosecutors will decide whether to drop charges against Australian Taxation Office (ATO) whistleblower Richard Boyle within the next week.
- The CDPP is considering whether or not it should drop the charges against ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle
- Mr Boyle’s case is the first major test case of protections available under the Public Interest Disclosure Act (2013)
- A Senate report last year found that ATO did a “superficial” investigation into Mr Boyle’s public interest disclosure
On Tuesday night, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, Sarah McNaughton, told Senate estimates that the CDPP was considering whether or not it should drop the charges against Mr Boyle, a former debt collection officer at the ATO’s Adelaide office.
Mr Boyle is relying on the public interest disclosure defence in pleading not guilty to offences including using a listening device to monitor a private conversation, recording another person’s tax file number and disclosing protected information.
A Senate report last year found that ATO did a “superficial” investigation into Mr Boyle’s public interest disclosure about the ATO misusing its powers against small businesses.
On Wednesday night, Ms McNaughton responded to questioning by independent senator Rex Patrick about whether the charges would be dropped.
“We can indicate that we have received materials and that includes a copy of the Senate report,” Ms McNaughton said.
“I can also indicate that we have indicated to the court that we will be considering these matters in relation to whether or not the matters should be no-billed (discontinued) within three weeks from the 10th of March.
“We are considering whether or not it should continue, and that decision — we have indicated to the court — we hope to be making by around about the 31st of March, and beyond that I’m really not in a position to comment.”
Public servant turned whistleblower
Mr Boyle became a whistleblower in October 2017 when he made an internal public interest disclosure to the ATO.
It was only after the ATO dismissed his internal disclosure about heavy-handed debt collection practices at the Adelaide office branch that Mr Boyle took his claims public via an ABC Four Corners investigation.
The media investigation revealed ATO staff were instructed to use an aggressive debt collection practice known as garnishee notices, which can have an adverse impact on vulnerable individuals and businesses.
Mr Boyle’s case is the first major test case of protections available under the Public Interest Disclosure Act (2013).
The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) has already reduced the charges against Mr Boyle from 66 to 24.
But if found guilty of each of the alleged offences, Mr Boyle could still face a maximum sentence that means he spends the rest of his life in jail.
A ‘huge injustice’
Senator Rex Patrick told ABC News that “a huge injustice would occur if the prosecution were allowed to continue”.
“It is not in the public interest to prosecute whistleblowers,” he said.
“Mr Boyle is not out of the woods yet, but the CDDP’s reconsideration of the prosecution is a very good thing.”
Senator Patrick said the ATO “improperly rejected” Mr Boyle’s public interest disclosure.
“At great risk to himself, he [Mr Boyle] then went to the media and the improper conduct was exposed which ultimately caused a stop to the abuse of power,” Senator Rex Patrick said.
“Mr Boyle acted courageously in the public interest only to find himself charged and before a court.”
“But for the superficial nature of the ATO’s investigation, the events that followed that led to the charges would never have occurred.”
“If the ATO had only done its job properly none of the alleged activities would have occurred.”
Following Mr Boyle’s revelations in the the Four Corners investigation, two major reviews found issues with the way the ATO exercised its powers.
The Inspector-General of Taxation’s report in the ATO’s use of garnishee notices noted that ATO staff had not on all occasions exercised their powers “proportionately and appropriately”.
Another review by the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman found the ATO’s actions were “crippling” small businesses.
The ATO has since made some changes to the way it handles small business disputes.
The reporter Nassim Khadem was part of the joint Fairfax-ABC Four Corners investigation during her previous employment with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
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