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Federal revenue minister calls offshore banking leak ‘good news’

Canada's National Revenue Minister Gail Shea speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa November 29, 2012.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Federal Revenue Mister Gail Shea is praising a massive leak of offshore banking information as "good news" for Canadians and bad news for tax evaders.

The minister issued a statement in response to media reports from outlets around the world working through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The consortium says it obtained 2.5 million digital files related to more than 120,000 offshore companies and trusts and nearly 130,000 individuals. The CBC, which worked with the consortium, reported Thursday that the files contain information on 450 Canadians. So far only one name has been made public: class-action lawyer Tony Merchant, who is married to Liberal Senator Pana Merchant.

It is not a crime to have an offshore bank account provided all related income is reported to tax authorities. So far, the Merchants have not commented on the CBC report.

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The statement by Ms. Shea calls on anyone with information on tax cheats to come forward with that information, including the consortium of journalists.

"We call on The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to hand over this list to allow our government to crack down on tax evaders," said the minister in the statement.

The 2013 federal budget promised measures to crack down on tax cheats – with new investigative powers and a new snitch line – but the reality is the Canada Revenue Agency is facing deep budget cuts.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's March budget contained about $60-million a year in budget cuts to the CRA. Those are in addition to $253.1-million in annual budget cuts announced in the 2012 budget.

Of the 19,234 positions Ottawa is planning to eliminate government wide, the CRA is projected to account for 3,008 of those jobs, making it the hardest hit department in terms of lost jobs.

Liberal Senator Percy Downe, who has been researching tax haven issues for several years, notes that Canadian authorities did not act as aggressively as other nations in response to previous big leaks of account information from Lichtenstein and Switzerland.

"You want to be optimistic and hopeful," he said. "Given their track record on Liechtenstein, they simply don't have the resources to do the job."

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While the CRA website provides extensive links to court cases were Canadians have been convicted of domestic tax evasion, the agency is unable to point to a single case where the CRA has obtained a conviction related to offshore tax havens.

In statements to Parliament and to the media, CRA officials claim that between April 1, 2006 and March 31, 2012, "44 taxpayers have been convicted of tax evasion related to money and other assets held offshore." The CRA claims this involved $7.7-million in federal tax evaded and that the related court sentences totaled $6.8-million in fines and 337 months in jail.

Mr. Downe says the CRA's claims are a "mystery" because the agency refuses to point to any specific examples. The Senator argues the government would actually bring in more money if it boosted the CRA's investigative budget.

"Why won't they put the resources in to address the problem?" he asked.

Mr. Downe was chief of staff to Prime Minister Jean Chretien when Pana Merchant was appointed to the Senate.

Mr. Downe declined to comment specifically on the Merchants and the report of an offshore account.

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"I'm sure over time we'll find out what status that account was," he said. As for the appointment of Ms. Merchant in 2002, Mr. Downe said it was one of many appointments during his time in the Prime Minister's Office.

"It doesn't stand out for any particular reason," he said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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