Rogue unit allegations hogwash, former SARS enforcement head tells inquiry

The former head of SARS enforcement Gene Ravele told the commission of inquiry into affairs at the tax agency that allegations over the so-called 'rogue unit’ were nothing but hogwash.

During an interview after his testimony, Ravele stated that the unit was "hurting" people connected to those in power through their investigations.

During an emotionally charged session Ravele made bombshell revelations over the cessation of inspections at factories of cigarette manufacturers in the aftermath of his departure from SARS, including that former second-in-charge at the service Jonas Makwakwa put a stop to the factory inspections.

This has the effect, Ravele said, of these manufacturers not complying with excise payments and a potential loss of hundreds of millions to the economy.

Ravele, who joined SARS in 1997, resigned in May 2015 amid what he termed as “incremental pressure” placed on him by then commissioner Tom Moyane.

Moyane was appointed by former president Jacob Zuma in September 2014.

The commission of inquiry is looking into serious governance issues at SARS – and is now focusing mainly on one of the terms of reference, being the mass exodus of senior and experienced staff after Moyane arrived.

Retired Judge Robert Nugent highlighted that the inquiry would proceed with more public hearings in August – and would deal with the terms of reference as the process evolved.

Ravele testified that he was essentially pushed out of SARS through a combination of investigations against him, in particular a criminal case that was opened against Ravele and his wife, also a SARS employee. The charges were formally dropped in September last year, with the NPA declaring at the time that there was no evidence to support the charges.

Ravele also testified over the role and function of the High Risk Investigations unit – the so-called rogue unit - which fell under his division.

He dismissed the allegations over the unit, essentially that it conducted illegal surveillance using high-tech equipment – as “hogwash”.

“I want to kill some myths about the unit,” Ravele said.

“They used to support investigations. Just after I joined, we busted a warehouse in Durban where they were making crystal meth. The unit identified chemicals that could be used in the production of crystal meth that were being imported from China. The unit checked the bill of lading and found those chemicals were going to this warehouse. That unit helped identify where that warehouse was.”

He then detailed that the unit did “reconnaissance” on the warehouse, and the information was handed to other SARS units who conducted a search and seizure operation together with the Hawks.

He said he also told Moyane that he had conducted investigations into allegations against the unit that appeared in the Sunday Times, and had not found any evidence relating to the alleged purchase of surveillance equipment, among other allegations.

Ravele also revealed that Moyane had instructed former spokesperson Adrian Lackay not to respond to questions from the media on the unit at the time, despite Lackay’s dissatisfaction.

Throughout the rogue unit saga, which has now been disproved, the members of the unit were instructed not to speak to the media, effectively muzzling them, and giving them no opportunity to defend themselves.

Despite Moyane being told internally that no evidence could be found to substantiate the allegations, SARS also never publicly defended members of the unit.

Ravele was instructed by Moyane to disband the HRIU following the first few articles, and to integrate the remaining members back into SARS.

In October 2014, Moyane took the decision to disband the Executive Committee, of which Ravele was a member – surprisingly a day after a special exco meeting, held on a Sunday, Moyane convened to discuss the rogue unit allegations.  

“During the Monday meeting he [Moyane] said I met with exco yesterday. I am very disappointed with all of you and I have lost all confidence in all of you,” Ravele said.

“No rogue activities will happen on my watch,” Moyane reportedly said.

“I am not responsible for prostitutes here,” he added, in reference to a Sunday Times story headlined “Taxman ran brothel”. The story, along with others over the rogue unit published by the newspaper, were later retracted and a full page apology was published.

Ravele said he believed Moyane could have disbanded exco – a decision he rescinded a month later – during the special exco meeting on the Sunday.

“Why call everyone, all the managers here, and disband it like that? Why humiliate us?”

Ravele left SARS soon after this – in May 2015.

The inquiry continues – with former deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay and others to give evidence.

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