If SARS spy unit acted illegally‚ he didn’t know about it‚ says Gordhan
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan says that if any of the members of a covert spy unit within the SA Revenue Services whose existence he confirmed on Wednesday engaged in unlawful activities they did so without his knowledge or consent.
He also denied having any knowledge of an alleged operation code-named “Sunday Evenings” in terms of which certain SARS members allegedly “spied” on the National Prosecuting Authority about eight years ago.
Gordhan said on Wednesday it had become apparent to SARS during his tenure as commissioner that it had to enhance its capacity to gather intelligence (departmental intelligence) and investigate organised crime related to tax and customs legislation (for example cigarette smuggling).
“SARS decided in about February 2007 to set up the Unit to penetrate and intercept the activities of tax and customs related crime syndicates‚” he said.
Gordhan issued a statement on Wednesday answering questions sent to him by the Hawks about the so-called “rogue unit”.
He stated: “The unit did not initially have a name but was later successively known as the Special Projects Unit‚ the National Research Group and the High-Risk Investigations Unit. I participated in the decision to establish the Unit in February 2007.”
“My legal advice is that the establishment Unit was lawful.”
Gordhan’s statement is in answer to 27 questions sent to him by the Hawks on the eve of the national budget.
The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation‚ also known as the Hawks‚ is investigating the unit on suspicion of it conducting illegal surveillance on taxpayers.
He stated that during his time as commissioner of SARS‚ the unit employed 26 odd people – “a miniscule part of the 15‚000 staff compliment of SARS”.
“My knowledge of the Unit’s day-to-day operations was consequently very limited‚” he said‚ adding that‚ as far as he was aware‚ the unit “lawfully performed its functions”.
“I was not personally involved in the recruitment of its members but I am told that the process was in accordance with SARS policy. If it or any of its members engaged in unlawful activities then they did so without my knowledge or consent. I have no knowledge of the operation code-named ‘Sunday Evenings’‚” Gordan added.
The Sunday Times previously reported that an internal SARS report had revealed that some of the unit members had masqueraded as bodyguards to top ANC members to infiltrate the party.
The unit members worked as bodyguards at a Superbike event at Kyalami race track attended by top ANC politicians‚ including Tokyo Sexwale‚ Paul Mashatile‚ Fikile Mbalula‚ Pule Mabe‚ Zizi Kodwa‚ former ANC Youth League president and EFF leader Julius Malema and businessmen Mabheleni Ntuli and Fana Hlongwane‚ the newspaper said.
It also revealed that the unit members allegedly broke into President Jacob Zuma's R3.6-million private residence in Forest Town‚ Johannesburg‚ and planted listening devices. At the time Zuma was unemployed after he had been fired as deputy president. He was in the running for the ANC presidency and had just been acquitted on a rape charge.
SARS is believed to have spent R106-million on the rogue unit's salaries‚ travel expense claims‚ annual leave payments and performance bonuses‚ the newspaper said.
The report added that there was no evidence that SARS had owned a brothel but that “some members of the unit engaged services of prostitutes during their leisure time" – which were some of the allegations that had been levelled against the unit.
A review released on Wednesday by the United Nations criticising South Africa’s law and order system said the government needed to improve the rule of law to protect detainees‚ human rights campaigners and migrants – and to tighten safeguards against the invasion of individual privacy from state surveillance.
The review expressed concern about “the relatively low threshold for conducting surveillance” by the State - and the relatively weak safeguards‚ oversight and remedies against unlawful interference with the right to privacy contained in SA’s 2002 Relation of Interception of Communications and Provisions and Provision of Communications Related Information Act (RICA).
It also voiced concern about the wide scope of the data retention regime under the Act‚ as well as reports of unlawful surveillances practices‚ including mass interception of communications‚ carried out by the National Communications Centre and at delays in “fully operationalising the Protection of Personal Information Act”.
The State‚ the UN review said‚ should “refrain from engaging in mass surveillance of private communications without prior judicial authorisation and consider revoking or limiting the requirement for mandatory retention of data by third parties”.
“It should also ensure that interception of communications by law enforcement and security services is carried out only on the basis of the law and under judicial supervision.”
South Africa should increase the transparency of its surveillance policy and speedily establish independent oversight mechanisms to prevent abuses and ensure that individuals have access to effective remedies‚ the review stated.