Tobacco industry insiders behind 'initial attacks on Sars' – former unit head

Johannesburg – Former head of the Sars investigation unit Johann van Loggerenberg released a statement on Tuesday night indicating that the initial attacks on Sars, himself and the unit had been driven by people inside the tobacco industry.

"As early as 31 July 2014 Sars was on record that at least the initial attacks on Sars, me and investigative units that I managed were driven by persons associated with the tobacco industry."

Van Loggerenberg made his statement after it emerged that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan could face arrest by the Hawks.

News24 revealed that Gordhan not only faced possible arrest, but that Sars had also launched a massive new forensic probe into deals concluded during his tenure at the organisation.

Sars appointed accounting firm Grant Thornton to conduct a forensic investigation into its modernisation and technology programme, which was implemented between 2007 and 2014.

Gordhan was Sars commissioner from 1999 until 2009.

The Daily Maverick on Tuesday night reported that the Hawks had asked Gordhan, his former deputy at Sars Ivan Pillay and three other former senior Sars officials to provide warning statements.

Appearing before Hawks

A warning statement is a precursor to a suspect being charged criminally.

Gordhan, Pillay, former head of risk Pete Richer, and Van Loggerenberg were summoned to appear before the Hawks on Thursday morning.

The Western Cape Hawks had already obtained a warning statement from Van Loggerenberg's predecessor, Andries "Skollie" Janse van Rensburg.

News24 understands Gordhan and his four former colleagues were expected to be charged under the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act of 2002 and the National Strategic Intelligence Act of 1994.

The charges related to the alleged establishment of intelligence capacity in Sars, the recruitment of investigators to work for this unit and "Project Sunday Evenings". The latter was an allegedly illegal Sars operation to record conversations of members of the now-defunct Scorpions unit.

Grant Thornton said its forensic investigation at Sars was in progress.

Two transactions in focus

The firm was "specifically appointed to conduct an independent preliminary forensic investigation of the modernisation and technology programme from 2007 to 2014". This was according to a statement in answer to News24's queries, issued by communications firm StratComms.

The programme was started in 2007 and saw Sars adopt new software and IT systems, such as its e-filing platform and its electronic system for customs payments.

It is understood that two transactions in particular had been in the Grant Thornton investigators' sights: one involving software development firm BBD, and another involving state-owned software firm Interfront.

The Grant Thornton probe was known within Sars as "Project Lion", say sources familiar with the development.

Van Loggerenberg said he believed it was in the public interest to provide a response to the allegations that he had been asked to provide a warning statement to the Hawks.

"I urge the public to not overreact on mere speculation," he said. "I have continuously offered my co-operation to the authorities since as early as 2014. I have nothing to hide and deny any wrongdoing.

"As stated before, I have no doubt that if the Hawks conduct their investigations without fear or favour, the truth shall ultimately triumph."

'Creating confusion'

Substantiating his allegations regarding the attacks on the tax organisation being driven by people associated with the tobacco industry, Van Loggerenberg referred to an article run in The Star at the time.

The article said that a clampdown by the taxman on the tobacco industry had resulted in a backlash which saw Sars investigators becoming the target of "spies, double agents, dirty tricks and the leaking of false allegations to discredit them".

"There are people who have a vested interest in creating confusion among State institutions. Sars is in no doubt that they are behind these allegations, as they have been in the past," then spokesperson Adrian Lackay said at the time.

Sars had sent letters, under the project name "Honey Badger", to the Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa (Tisa) and the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association, which represent the majority of stakeholders in the tobacco industry in South Africa indicating there would be investigations.

Van Loggerenberg said that recent revelations on social media platform Twitter by a whistleblower in the tobacco industry, @EspionageSA "have a direct bearing on the matters at hand".

The leaks contain hundreds of pages of documents revealing alleged spying by British American Tobacco through their hired security company FSS on their competitors, particularly Carnilinx. The documents contain private information on employees of competitors, which was allegedly obtained through spying and bribing of police officers.

Heads in the sand

Van Loggerenberg has been openly commenting on the leaks on Twitter over the last few days, indicating frustration that the revelations are not being investigated by the authorities.

"I can confirm that all indications are that the real rogue unit exposed by @EspionageSA is not being investigated," he tweeted.

He retweeted The Star’s 2014 story and commented: "Well before the rogue unit sham. Eventually the truth will out. Waiting 4 my day 2 be heard [sic]."

He also posted a picture of people sticking their heads in the sand, and commented: "Certain journos who drove Sars 'rogue unit' narrative 30+ articles over 2 years after @EspionageSA leaks be like…"

Another tweet had a picture of an ostrich with its head in the sand and went: "Hawks after @EspionageSA massive leaks of corruption, money-laundering, illegal covert rogue intelligence units."

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