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The Canada Revenue Agency headquarters Connaught Building in Ottawa on Aug. 17, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The head of the union representing Canada Revenue Agency workers says rule-breakers must face consequences after the CRA announced that hundreds of its employees are under investigation for inappropriately receiving CERB payments during the pandemic.

The agency’s late Friday revelation is prompting concern the news could weaken public trust in the integrity of Canada’s tax system, which Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier says remains sound.

The CRA announced that about 600 of its employees are facing an investigation, and 20 are no longer with the organization, as part of a continuing review of cases of alleged misuse of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which was partly administered by the agency.

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

Marc Brière, national president for the Union of Taxation Employees, said in an interview Sunday that while his union will represent members accused of wrongdoing, some will inevitably lose their jobs.

“I was very surprised. I was flabbergasted,” he said. “We’re there to defend them, but we can’t defend the undefendable sometimes if it’s a bad case,” he said, adding that he has not received details on all of the allegations because of the agency’s confidentiality policies.

Business leaders are also expressing concern at the size of the investigation.

Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty, who was revenue minister under Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, said Sunday that he was “disturbed” to learn that CRA was leery about so many of its own employees.

Mr. Beatty said in an e-mailed statement that Canadians must have trust in their tax collectors.

“Our system relies on voluntary compliance. It requires public confidence that everyone is abiding by the rules, starting with the tax department itself. When that trust breaks down, people turn to the underground economy,” he said.

Mr. Beatty said it was understood that there would be some risk of abuse as the government acted quickly to provide massive amounts of emergency support for individuals and businesses during the pandemic.

“What we didn’t expect was that the government would become suspicious of so many people within the agency that was administering the program,” he said.

The CERB paid $500 a week and was the primary emergency benefit program offered to individuals who could not work for reasons related to COVID-19. Applicants had to attest that they met the program criteria.

The CRA had previously announced that it was reviewing the issue.

On Friday, the agency said: “In an effort to ensure transparency, we would like to pro-actively confirm that as of June 30, 2023, there are 20 employees no longer with the CRA as a result of these reviews. It is important to note that this number is likely to increase as the reviews are completed.”

A broad internal review process is under way to identify any CRA employees who inappropriately received CERB payments while employed with the CRA, the agency said.

“An internal review process to investigate each case is warranted as the CRA employs individuals with a variety of employment profiles such as temporary and student contracts; and, as such, individuals may have been eligible to receive the CERB at the time it was available,” the agency said.

In situations where misconduct is confirmed, the agency said disciplinary actions will be relative to the seriousness of the case and each review is handled on a case-by-case basis. The agency said any mitigating and aggravating factors will be considered.

The agency statement did not mention whether any cases have been referred to police. A CRA spokesperson said on Sunday that they were unable to provide additional comment because it was a holiday weekend.

Mr. Brière, the union leader, said he has not been told whether any of the cases have warranted referral to law enforcement.

Jérémy Collard, a spokesperson for the Revenue Minister, said Ms. Lebouthillier requested a broader review of the situation after receiving preliminary results in March.

“At all times, we expect CRA employees to uphold the highest standards of integrity and ethics,” he said in a statement Sunday. “Fraud will not be tolerated, and employees who are responsible, after due process takes its course, will be dismissed.

“Canadians can be reassured that this situation in no way undermines the honesty and integrity of the more than 60,000 agency employees who work every day in an exemplary manner to serve them.”

In February, the agency provided a written answer to an MP that said 10 of its employees were subject to an internal investigation related to incorrectly claiming COVID-19 benefits.

At that time, the CRA declined to provide additional information when asked by The Globe and Mail.

Employment and Social Development, the other department responsible for delivering pandemic benefits, had provided more specific figures in February.

Assistant deputy minister Mary Crescenzi told the House of Commons public accounts committee that the department has terminated 49 employees “in regard to misrepresentation of their situation when they were applying for CERB.”

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the news from CRA is offensive to small-business owners who faced frustration in accessing pandemic supports.

“It is deeply worrisome to see Canada Revenue employees drawing COVID-19 benefits while still receiving their paycheques from the agency,” he told The Globe on Sunday, expressing surprise that federal systems were not able to flag existing government employees when they applied for CERB.

“This is particularly insulting to the many thousands of small businesses and self-employed Canadians that needed help, but didn’t meet the often-rigid eligibility restrictions,” he said.

CRA Commissioner Bob Hamilton made headlines in January when he told MPs that it wasn’t worth the effort to conduct a full review of more than $15-billion in pandemic wage benefits that the Auditor-General has said may have been sent to ineligible recipients.

Conservative MP and revenue critic Adam Chambers said the latest revelation raises questions as to how many public servants in other departments received CERB while employed.

“This is the same department that didn’t accept the Auditor-General’s findings on how many COVID-19 support payments should be investigated,” he said. “This is a sign of lax controls on behalf of taxpayers.”

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