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The employment insurance section of the Government of Canada website on a laptop in Toronto on April 4, 2020.Jesse Johnston/The Canadian Press

The Canada Revenue Agency has fired 120 of its employees after an internal review into staff who inappropriately claimed COVID-19 benefits while employed by the agency, with potentially more discipline to come.

The CRA issued a statement Friday to provide updated findings of a previously announced internal review of hundreds of cases.

“Out of the approximately 600 cases we can report that 120 individuals are no longer with the CRA as a result of this internal review. The investigations and disciplinary processes continue,” the agency said, meaning further updates are possible.

The review is focused on CRA employees who may have improperly received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. The CERB paid $500 a week and was offered to individuals who could not work for reasons related to COVID-19.

“Any CRA employee who inappropriately claimed the CERB will be required to repay the amounts if they haven’t already done so. Reviews of CRA employees who inappropriately claimed the CERB while working at the CRA are being handled through the CRA’s existing internal investigation and disciplinary processes, and could lead to referrals to law enforcement if criminality is suspected.”

The agency statement did not say how many cases have been referred to police.

In August, the RCMP’s Provincial Financial Crime Team charged Yukon resident Melissa Jensen Webb with fraud and other offences. The police said she is alleged to have fraudulently obtained nearly $20,000 from the government by claiming CERB and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit while working as a full-time employee of the CRA. The allegations have not been proven in court.

Hundreds of CRA employees under investigation for receiving potentially inappropriate pandemic benefits

The agency said in the Friday statement that it takes any form of wrongdoing seriously. It also repeated that being an employee of the CRA does not necessarily mean an individual was ineligible for the CERB. The CRA said that because it employs individuals with “a variety of employment profiles,” such as temporary and student contracts, some may have been eligible to receive the payments, adding that roughly 30 employees who are part of the review have been found eligible so far.

“We would like to emphasize again that the actions of some in no way undermine the honesty and integrity of the more than 60,000 CRA employees who work every day in an exemplary manner to serve Canadians,” the agency said.

Marc Brière, national president for the Union of Taxation Employees, said in an interview that workers who act inappropriately must face the consequences.

“Obviously it’s disappointing. I mean, it’s not good news,” he said, while echoing the agency’s point that the 120 individuals represent a very small percentage of the CRA’s total work force.

Mr. Brière said he’s come across cases where some members honestly, but wrongly, believed they were eligible. One example, he said, is an employee who had a second job but lost it because of COVID-19.

The CRA needs to call in the police over CERB claims by its employees

The agency’s decision to fire employees after an investigation that finds wrongdoing is understandable, he said.

“I’m not surprised. They have to defend their reputation and also the integrity of the tax system meant to keep the trust of the population. So I understand that.”

Employment and Social Development, the other department responsible for delivering pandemic benefits, said in February that it had terminated 49 employees “in regard to misrepresentation of their situation when they were applying for CERB.”

An internal Canada Revenue Agency audit of more than $5-billion in CERB and other emergency payments to individuals during the pandemic found that about 65 per cent went to ineligible recipients who must pay back the money.

Auditor-General Karen Hogan released a report in December that said billions of dollars in ineligible COVID-19 benefit payments are at risk of going uncollected because the federal government is doing a poor job of identifying individuals and businesses that should pay back funds.

Federal Revenue Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said in a statement that the continuing investigation shows the issue is being taken “very seriously” by the government.

“The disciplinary measures imposed show that for us it is zero tolerance. These cases must not call into question the integrity and honesty of the more than 60,000 CRA employees who work in an exemplary fashion to serve their fellow citizens,” she said.

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