Call the cops.
When the federal tax agency found employees had claimed CERB benefits meant for those who lost their incomes during the COVID-19 pandemic, it let 20 of them go. That’s what it told Canadians eventually, after dodging questions for months.
What it didn’t do, as far as we know, is call the police to ask them to investigate. At least, it won’t say if it has.
This was the agency running the CERB program – half of it, anyway – and some of its own people were claiming the benefits. You would think that the Canada Revenue Agency would be itching to tell the public it is rooting out those bad apples and throwing the book at them.
Instead, late on Friday before the Canada Day long weekend, the CRA put out a press release that told Canadians the 20 employees had been let go and that 600 employees have been “identified” for review. The CRA didn’t say if it has referred the matter to police.
When 20 revenue agency employees lose their jobs for inappropriately collecting emergency benefits, is there no question of whether anyone broke the law? Or is there an effort to keep things quiet?
National Revenue Minister Diane Le Bouthillier should never let those questions go unanswered. Why has she not come out to provide some explanation?
It was always expected that the CERB program, scrambled out quickly soon after the pandemic started in 2020, would be abused. Even now, Canadians are probably willing to give rule-benders some latitude.
But when it is people on the inside, that is something different. Then the government has to act – in full view of the public – to preserve trust.
Employment and Social Development Canada, which administered the other half of the CERB program, had already said it let go 49 employees who collected benefits. Mary Crescenzi, an assistant deputy minister at ESDC, told a parliamentary committee in February that none of the cases had been referred to law enforcement.
A spokesperson for the CRA, Sylvie Branch, noted in an e-mail that some student employees or temporary workers could have legitimately claimed CERB, and some would be cleared if they received benefits before being hired by the agency. Fair enough. What happened with the others?
In the U.S., the Department of Justice touted a prosecution of five IRS employees charged with defrauding COVID-19 relief programs last October, naming the accused in a press release. “We will continue to aggressively pursue IRS employees who breach the public trust, safeguarding the integrity of the IRS,” said J. Russell George, the agency’s inspector-general for tax administration.
By contrast, the CRA’s long weekend press release sought to minimize the issue, emphasizing three times that a small portion of CRA employees are involved. The 600 people under review, it said, are less than 1 per cent of the agency’s work force.
Hopefully, very few of those 600 did anything wrong. But if 1 per cent of tax filers were being reviewed for improperly collecting CERB, it would amount to 300,000 individuals. Here we are talking about tax agency employees.
In February, MPs asked CRA Commissioner Bob Hamilton how many employees had been investigated and he said, “not many.” He said he didn’t think any had been referred to law enforcement. A few days later, Conservative Senator Denise Batters asked for the numbers of people let go and referred to police, but got no answer from the government representative in the Senate, Marc Gold.
“It’s now been years since the vast majority of CERB benefits were paid out,” Ms. Batters said in an interview. “We should know that.”
After the CRA put out its statement Friday, it did not provide an answer as to whether cases had been referred to police because it was a long weekend. On Thursday, Ms. Branch said if the agency suspects criminality, it can refer the matter to police – but she did not say if it has done so. The RCMP would not say.
All of this is the opposite of what the CRA should be doing.
This is the agency that collects Canadians’ taxes based on a voluntary-disclosure system that is backed by potential audits, investigation and penalties. It should apply some of that to itself.
CRA officials can’t name names, but they can provide more transparency on what has happened and show the public they are taking steps to hold people accountable.
They have failed so far. Now it’s up to Ms. Lebouthillier and the Liberal government to provide some transparency. And call the police.