080310 The new offices of SARS at corner Rissik street and Albert street. Picture: Ziphozonke Lushaba

Parliament – Former senior SA Revenue Service (Sars) employees on Wednesday threatened legal action after a media briefing by Police Minister Nathi Nhleko outlining the Hawks’ investigation into the existence of a so-called rogue spy unit at the revenue service.

“The public statements today by the Ministers of Police and State Security on investigations by the Hawks into investigative units at the South African Revenue Service (Sars) is a violation of our rights to dignity and reputation,” former acting Sars commissioner Ivan Pillay and former Sars group executive for strategy, risk and planning, Peter Richer, said in a joint statement.

Read: Nhleko defends Hawks’ Gordhan questions

“We are left with no other option than to seek legal advice and to take appropriate action to defend ourselves. To date, all investigations that have been instituted against us, either by Sars or other state institutions, have never afforded us a fair opportunity to be heard or to have our side of the story represented.”

Pillay and Richer resigned in May last year after Sars instituted disciplinary proceedings against them following a report by an advisory panel that said the formation of the alleged rogue unit be investigated by police and that those responsible for breaching the law be charged.

Read: Hawks probing Sars unit, not Gordhan

On Wednesday, Nhleko provided journalists with an update of the Hawks’ investigation into the unit, insisting that the Hawks were investigating on the basis of several reports commissioned by Sars that had found “prima facie evidence” that among others that the unit abused its power and overstepped by doing what the country’s intelligence agencies were mandated to do, that it recruited operatives in violation of Sars’ own human resources policy, and that the rogue behaviour of some in the unit could harm the reputation of the revenue service.

Richer and Pillay continue to deny the allegations.

“Allegations that the investigative units in Sars were unlawful and illegal, operated front companies including running a brothel, bugged President Jacob Zuma, spied on taxpayers and entered into illegal settlements for tax disputes, gave certain taxpayers preferential treatment, infiltrated taxpayers, broke into homes and planted listening devices and the like, are all false and unsubstantiated,” Richer and Pillay said.

Read: Gordhan’s job is safe, says Zuma

“In addition, the allegation that Sars, during our time as managers, purchased and used sophisticated spyware is false and unsubstantiated.”

The statement further said that Nhleko had failed to specify which breaches of law the Hawks were probing, and had not taken into account Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s contention that the “National Research Group (NRG) and other investigative units at Sars were established lawfully, with ministerial approval, operated within Sars legal and policy framework and generated significant tax revenue for South Africa.”

“We reiterate again: The NRG, and subsequent investigative units in Sars, were legally constituted and did admirable work to disrupt activities in the illicit economy. Its finances were approved transparently in the normal way of Sars budgeting processes and was audited by the Auditor General every year.”

Read: Ombud ruling vindicates ex-Sars officials

In a separate statement from the former head of the so-called rogue unit, Johann van Loggerenberg, he too denied all allegations that Sars investigative units had been unlawfully established, insisting he had agreed to fully cooperate with the Hawks in their investigation.

“I deny that I have ever broken any law or done anything illegal (or allowed any unit or Sars official that reported to me to do so) whilst I was a Sars manager,” van Loggerenberg said.

“I specifically deny that the Sars units, respectively known as the Special Projects Unit (SPU), the later National Research Group (NRG) and finally the High-risk Investigations Unit (HRIU), of which I was the manager of since March 2008 onwards; were illegally established or engaged in any illegal activity of any kind.”

He contradicted assertions from Nhleko that the unit had illegally acquired equipment and assets, including eavesdropping equipment, to spy on taxpayers.

“As cost centre manager, I would have been aware of acquisitions of any equipment of any kind. None of these units, not the SPU, nor NRG or HRIU acquired any specialised or listed equipment that could be used for ‘intelligence gathering’. They also did not use such equipment to spy on persons.”

Van Loggerenberg said he would seek legal advice on Nhleko’s utterances and if necessary would “heed to legal advice to act in my own best interests”.

Van Loggerenberg resigned early last year after being suspended, and amid statements from Sars that he could be criminally charged – something which has failed to transpire more than a year later.