Cigarette firm probe by Hawks deepens

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Johannesburg - A local cigarette manufacturer facing a probe for allegedly spying on the government’s tax investigators has also been accused of allegedly illegally intercepting the police’s Crime Intelligence operations.

Last month the South African Revenue Service opened a case against tobacco manufacturer Carnilinx, its five directors and a private investigator it allegedly hired to spy on and intimidate its investigators.

The case was registered with the Hawks.

But The Sunday Independent has reliably been informed that the Hawks have extended their investigation into the alleged spying on their colleagues in the crime intelligence division.

Two independent sources – one in the police – confirmed the probe.

“It will not be a separate charge to the one laid by Sars but it will strengthen the case,” said the police source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We have picked it up and we are exploring all avenues. We believe crime intelligence officers were among the people intercepted,” the source said.

Hawks spokesman Captain Paul Ramaloko would not comment on the latest phase of the investigation.

Earlier this month, Ramaloko had confirmed that the unit was investigating charges relating to the illegal interception of communications.

A Carnilinx director who spoke on behalf of the company said the firm did not wish to comment on the new investigation.

The country’s three cellphone giants – MTN, Vodacom and Cell C – have also been dragged into the saga and accused of aiding the illegal activities by apparently providing the manufacturer with telephone records.

They have denied the charge.

Sars alleges that Carnilinx – widely considered to be the biggest local independent manufacturer – spied on, bribed and threatened its investigators to stop a probe into its tax affairs.

Stephen Wingate-Pearse from KWP Attorneys, representing Carnilinx director Martin Wingate-Pearse said he had no knowledge of the investigation.

Three weeks ago Stephen Wingate-Pearse confirmed that Carnilinx had hired a private investigator to establish the origins of a device found affixed to one of its vehicles in June last year.

The private investigator, said Wingate-Pearse, had established that the object was a tracking device with a SIM card.

“His investigations linked the SIM card in the device to an employee of FSS Security, the security arm of the Tobacco Industry of South Africa,” said Wingate-Pearse.

“Further investigation at the private investigator’s own reconnaissance revealed that the SIM had been used prior to being discovered to make calls to the government enforcement offices.”

He said the company had also notified the police of the device and were given a reference number.

Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa chairman Francois van der Merwe said the institute did not survey the company nor order its security arm to do so.

The police probe comes as the revenue service tightens the grip on illicit tobacco trade, estimated to have cost the country over R400 million in unpaid tax and levies this year alone.

Last year alone, close to 8.5 billion illicit cigarettes were smoked in South Africa and the government lost over R5bn in taxes not paid.

Over the past three years, this figure has nearly tripled to R12bn.

Last month, the taxman asked the National Prosecuting Authority to prosecute 15 local tobacco manufacturers and importers for tax evasion.

Sunday Independent

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