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

Johannesburg -

By 2007, organised crime in South Africa had become so prolific that the SA Revenue Service was in need of an intelligence unit.

This was the noble start of what is now know as the Sars “rogue spy unit” in the media, operated by former intelligence agents who were allegedly carrying out covert operations.

The beginning of the unit is described in the Sikhakhane report, which said Sars had come under political pressure to deal with organised crime, and it responded by recruiting individuals who had the requisite intelligence background to address its concerns.

The plan was that a unit would be housed within the National Intelligence Agency (NIA).

The report said the evidence revealed that on February 12, 2007, the then commissioner of Sars, Pravin Gordhan, addressed a memorandum to then minister of finance Trevor Manuel seeking approval for the funding of intelligence capability within the NIA in support of Sars.

“At this stage, Sars correctly recognised that it had no statutory authority to collect intelligence…”

But it did carry on operating.

Chief of staff in the Presidency Dumisa Jele said Gordhan would not be commenting on the Sars allegations.

Sars approved the creation of a group known by different names, including the tiger group, special projects unit, the NRG and, later, the high-risk investigation unit.

The unit was staffed with members who came primarily from the intelligence structures with the requisite skills to conduct surveillance, and investigate and monitor those involved in the illicit economy.

However, the report said Sars and the NIA were unable to formalise the creation of a unit with the NIA… so “Sars found itself in a position that it had a unit which had capabilities beyond its legal mandate.

“The recruitment of former intelligence officers within the ranks was a double-edged sword for Sars.

“It afforded Sars the opportunity to make great strides in its own investigations. These former operatives possessed investigative skills that Sars required to respond to the political calls to deal with organised crime and illicit trade.”

But this altered the culture of the organisation, the report said.

“It may have the effect of turning a civilian structure into a command-and-control theatre of intrigue and subterfuge.”

While these agents were recruited to Sars to help equip it with much-needed investigative skills, the report concludes that “the presence of such operatives has at times resulted in a lack of transparency and a culture of working outside of the policies and principles of Sars”.

According to some of the members of the unit, they carried out covert and illegal intelligence-gathering.

The panel discovered that the operational structure of the unit was in the form of cells or sub-units that were self-contained and independent of other cells.

“Despite all the evidence of poor judgment that we have encountered in our investigation, including rogue conduct by individuals and acts of illegality, Sars as an institution remains an efficient, hardworking and able revenue service.

“The problem, in our view, was a tiny ugly spot that lay deep in the belly of this august institution. Once rid of this, Sars remains the cornerstone of South Africa’s economy.

“This ugly spot is, in our view, is the unit that was established without the requisite legislative framework, and operated in isolation and outside the official premises of Sars,” the report said.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The panel recommended:

* The activities of the unit be investigated by the inspector- general of intelligence.

* The Sars commissioner suggest to the president that there be a special judicial commission of inquiry.

* There be proper structures of co-operation between Sars and government agencies tasked with intelligence gathering.

* The minister of finance request Parliament to enact legislation giving Sars investigative capacity and that the revenue service conduct a forensic investigation into all the settlements concluded with taxpayers that have been under investigation since 2005.

The Star