15 February 2024

AFP's investigation into PwC continues, but the firm's contracts with the Federal Police do not

| Chris Johnson
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AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw appearing at Senate Estiamtes, February 2024

AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw appearing at Senate Estimates, February 2024. Image: Screenshot.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw has vowed to “get to the bottom” of the PricewaterhouseCoopers criminal investigation over the leaking of confidential Treasury information.

But he could not tell Parliament how long it might take to get there.

Appearing in Senate estimates hearings this week, Commissioner Kershaw and other senior AFP officers confirmed that the Federal Police had no ongoing contracts with PwC in light of its investigation into the giant accounting firm.

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They also noted that the investigation had stretched beyond Australian shores and involved “very complex issues” that made a timeline all but impossible to meet.

“It’s really hard for the investigators to make a sterile corridor to keep that brief of evidence away from any future challenge or complications,” Commissioner Kershaw said.

“So the team have to painstakingly go through every piece of material, they have to literally analyse it in depth, you have to have a legal team attached all the way along. It’s extremely complex.

“But you know, whilst it may not be satisfying for the timeline, we will get to the bottom of it at the end of the day; it’s just going to take a while.”

While a PwC partner advising the government on tax matters in 2016, Peter-John Collins allegedly revealed confidential Treasury information to executives throughout the accountancy firm and to its international clients, devising a scheme to help them avoid paying the taxes he was helping to establish.

Mr Collins has since left the company and was deregistered in 2022 by the Tax Practitioners Board, with the fallout also seeing other senior PWC officials, including its then chief executive officer Tom Seymour, fall on their swords.

In May last year, Treasury Secretary Steven Kennedy, on orders from Treasurer Jim Chalmers, referred the matter to the AFP for investigation.

“PwC Australia’s former head of international tax, Mr Peter Collins, improperly used confidential Commonwealth information,” Mr Kennedy’s May statement said.

“The emails that the Tax Practitioners Board tabled in Parliament on 2 May 2023 highlighted the significant extent of the unauthorised disclosure of confidential Commonwealth information and the wide range of individuals within PwC who were, directly and indirectly, privy to the confidential information.

“In light of these recent revelations and the seriousness of this misconduct, the Treasury has referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police to consider commencement of a criminal investigation.”

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Deputy Commissioner Ian McCartney had told current Senate hearings that the investigation, Operation Alesia, was being treated as a priority and conducted by the AFP’s Sensitive Investigation Board.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to ventilate those issues in terms of the progress of the investigation,” he said.

“I don’t think I can give you a definitive timing when these matters traditionally take a considerable amount of time.”

Last year, it was revealed that the AFP had nine ongoing contracts with PwC. The Commissioner was grilled in May estimates over whether that was a conflict of interest.

The Commissioner stated then that the contractual arrangements were being reviewed, appropriate confidentiality agreements were in place, and proper security vetting of contractors had been conducted.

“We’re very good at compartmentalising criminal investigations.”

All PwC contracts with the AFP have been terminated, with the company being paid a compensation fee of $627,999 for work that had already been done.

Original Article published by Chris Johnson on Riotact.

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