Revived SARS illicit economy unit already eyeing 58 cases, says Kingon

The soon-to-be reopened SARS unit probing the illicit economy has already identified 58 cases for investigation, the tax agency's Acting Commissioner Mark Kingon told the Nugent Commission of Inquiry on Friday. 

The unit was one of several shut down under the now-infamous business restructure model ordered by suspend tax chief Tom Moyane. 

Kingon said the unit, which investigated cases such as tobacco trade and poaching, would be allowed to operate in the capacity it enjoyed before it was disbanded.

The unit probed some of the big names in the tobacco trade, and billions rands in unpaid taxes are said to have been lost since its closure in 2014.

During his testimony, Kingon, who was appointed seven months ago, also revealed that the agency was proceeding with an interim structure for the Large Business Centre unit, with a final structure expected to be in place by April 2019.

The service, which is responsible for revenue collection from large businesses, was also dissolved under Moyane. "This week I had the privilege of signing off a structure for the unit," Kingon said.

Watershed moment

Kingon described the commission as a "watershed moment" for the beleaguered tax service, which has suffered a revenue collection shortfall with allegations of mismanagement levelled against top officials.

"The commission of inquiry is a watershed moment in the SARS history. It has the possibility of opening new a chapter for SARS," he said.

He said the tax service's leadership needed to stand up and collectively take responsibility for its failures, stating that "the damage of the past will take time to heal."

Asked how he would use the funds recouped from consulting firm Bain & Company, which engineered SARS’s controversial restructure, Kingon said the money would go towards improvement of IT systems and training of staff.

"Our IT infrastructure has deteriorated over the last four-and-a-half years due to lack of maintenance," he said earlier during his evidence, emphasising that the agency’s e-filing system was not about to collapse in the immediate future. "But if we do not do anything, we are likely to get there."

Bain has pledged to return the R164m it received from SARS in service fees, saying it would await direction from the commission on how to make the refund.

Kingon further lamented the extensive staff exodus experienced in recent years, saying a total of 200 highly experienced staff had been displaced.

He said it was worth considering reinstating these staff members. "I need every single one of them."

As acting head of SARS, Kingon's future is still not certain. However, he stressed that he would support any person who would be appointed to the position of commissioner, saying: "I will make sure that SARS is a success."

The inquiry is set to continue for two days next week, with officials from Gartner, the company that designed the IT strategy for SARS, set to give evidence.

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